|Lionel Messi celebrates his first goal with Angel di Maria, in Porto Alegre, on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Porto Alegre: Lionel Messi did something here that we had not seen from him at this World Cup. Not the goals, or the casual, match-winning brilliance. That was old news. It came at the end of the first half, just after he had scored from a free-kick, as he was being mobbed by happy team-mates, as the Argentina fans were chanting his name over and over.
As he emerged from the huddle came that rarest of sights: a huge, beaming smile. Finally, at his third World Cup, in his 10th World Cup match, Messi was enjoying himself.
It’s a strange thing, pressure: it comes from many sources, but ultimately the main one is yourself. Nobody would have been more aware of Messi’s failure to reproduce his own stratospheric standards at a World Cup than himself. Now, as his fourth goal of the tournament sailed in as serenely as Argentina were sailing into the last 16, it was if an enormous weight had been lifted.
Not that Messi had it all his own way. Nigeria scrapped like tigers, making them earn the win until the very last moment. Two spectacular equalisers from Ahmed Musa turned this into a two-man show, at least until Marcos Rojo scored what turned out to be the winning goal five minutes into the second half.
Nobody could accuse Nigeria of coming unprepared. They countered Argentina’s attacking trident with four centre-backs, packed so narrowly that they could almost have been holding hands. Coach Stephen Keshi would often be seen hunching over on the touchline to check their alignment, like a joiner inspecting his handiwork.
Midfielder Ogenyi Onazi, meanwhile, was employed in the world’s most thankless defensive assignment: marking Messi. He followed him left, followed him right, never let him leave his sight, and still it was like trying to eat soup with a fork. Later tonight, tucked away in his hotel bed, Onazi will wake with a start, sit bolt upright, look around for Messi, and only then realise his nightmare is over.
Nigeria’s centre-blocking tactics relied on their wingers Musa and Peter Odemwingie tracking back to plug the gaps, but within three minutes Odemwingie went to sleep. He failed to spot the run of Angel Di Maria, gathered Javier Mascherano’s superb diagonal pass, and unleashed a shot that squirmed through the hands of Vincent Enyeama, came back off the post, and ran free, in the direction of the one man you do not want it to go to.
Messi had a free swing from 12 yards, but even so there were four players blocking the goalmouth. No matter. Messi thrashed it high into the roof of the net, and wheeled away with the understated nonchalance of a man simply doing his job. True genius turns the miraculous into the mundane.
Perhaps Messi’s insouciance lulled his team-mates into thinking the game already won. Less than a minute later, they paid for it. John Obi Mikel, freed from his Stamford Bridge shackles and playing an energetic box-to-box role here, released Musa down the left. Pablo Zabaleta was slow to close, and Musa was able to curl a shot from 20 yards that arced just inside the far post, beyond Sergio Romero’s dive. A brilliant goal, and the first time in history that both teams had scored in the first five minutes of a World Cup match.
And so, with scores effectively reset, the game settled into the pattern it had always augured: Argentina pressing, prodding, probing, Nigeria staunch in defence and sharp on the break. The chances, in the main, were Argentina’s: Gonzalo Higuain rounded the ’keeper but hit the side of the net. Enyeama, displaying all the poise and assurance of a pallbearer who had turned up at the wrong funeral, fumbled another shot from Di Maria. Rojo put a header wide. Juwon Oshaniwa made a crucial block as Sergio Aguero squeezed the trigger from 10 yards. Shortly after that, Aguero went off with an injury.
And so it was that after about 40 minutes of letting everyone else have a go, Messi decided to return from his lunch break. First came a glorious free-kick from 28 yards, palmed away by Enyeama, that it turned out was just an “amuse-bouche”. A couple of minutes later, another free-kick, a little closer. Messi barely appeared to hit it at all: instead, it arced like the sun, untroubled and unstoppable.
Enyeama didn’t even bother to dive. Messi had done it again. As he jogged towards the Argentina fans, now grinning from ear to ear, they bowed down en masse before him, as if saluting a new king.
But if Argentina ended the first half by unleashing their deadliest, they began the second by exposing their most serious flaw. Their central defenders stood flat-footed as Emmanuel Emenike cleverly flicked the ball into the path of Musa, who ran through on goal before finishing low past Romero.
Nigeria were level for just three minutes, Messi’s corner poked home from close range by the knee of Rojo. And thereafter, though Nigeria threatened, there was always a sense that Argentina had consciously shifted into a lower gear. Messi came off after an hour, to the sort of reception that would have embarrassed the Pope.
Musa missed two chances to complete a brilliant hat-trick: first volleying the ball over from 20 yards, and then cutting inside and being denied by a brilliant block from Zabaleta. But Iran’s defeat meant Nigeria qualified anyhow: a likely last-16 game against France awaiting them. Perhaps that contributed to the carnival atmosphere that bathed the last few minutes of this game: a celebration of this captivating tournament, a stage fit for the greatest of heroes.
Argentina: Sergio Romero; Pablo Zabaleta, Federico Fernandez, Ezequiel Garay, Marcos Rojo; Fernando Gago, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria; Gonzalo Higuain (Lucas Biglia, 90th), Lionel Messi (Ricardo Alvarez, 63rd), Sergio Aguero (Ezequiel Lavezzi, 38th).
Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama; Efe Ambrose, Joseph Yobo, Juwon Oshaniwa, Kenneth Omeruo; Ogenyi Onazi, John Obi Mikel; Ahmed Musa, Michael Babatunde (Okechukwu Uchebo, 66th), Peter Odemwingie (Uche Nwofor, 80th), Emmanuel Emenike.
Man of the Match: Lionel Messi.
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy).