Argentina 1-0 Nigeria
Argentina’s quest to add to their World Cup victories in 1978 and 1986 got off to an ideal start with a victory against Nigeria. It was a frustrating display by the Albiceleste who outplayed the Super Eagles but were repeatedly thwarted by the efforts of Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
Enyeama produced several astonishing saves from a barrage of efforts from La Liga duo Gonzalo Higuaín and Lionel Messi, who shone on the World Cup stage. Coach Diego Maradona created a stir before the kick-off, naming a starting eleven featuring a front trio of Higuaín, Messi and Carlos Tevez. Jonás Gutierrez, the Newcastle United winger was named as the starting right-back.
The scene for today’s victory was Ellis Park, Johannesburg. The iconic stadium was the setting for scenes of great national unity for South Africa when Francois Pienaar was presented the Rugby World Cup by Nelson Mandela in 1995. Maradona’s Argentina looked suitably united for the stadium, as the Albiceleste seemed relaxed and jocular in the tunnel before the game. Any reports of unease within the Argentine camp appeared to be grossly exaggerated.
Argentina began brightly, Messi sparkling as he evaded the challenges of Nigerian defenders before curling a shot towards the top corner, forcing a sensational stop from Enyeama. Nigeria coach Lars Lagerbäck, whose Swedish sides were traditionally well versed in the art of defending set pieces, will have cursed his team’s defending from the ensuing corner. Juan Seba Verón’s cross finding Gabriel Heinze unmarked. The former Manchester United defender producing a marvellous header from deep to give Argentina the lead in the sixth minute.
Argentina looked supreme in possession but were not as convincing when forced to chase Nigeria. Jonás Gutierrez’s unfamiliarity with the right-back role was exposed recurrently by Ogbuke Obasi and Victor Obinna.
In spite of this defensive uncertainty, Argentina were unrelenting in their attempts to earn a second goal. The midfield, marshalled by captain Javier Mascherano and guided by Verón, were in fine form as they slowly created opportunities for the front three to flourish.
Messi brought more saves from Enyeama before Gonzalo Higuaín had perhaps the best chance of the first half, a beautifully weighted pass from Carlitos Tevez setting the Real Madrid striker through on goal. Higuaín was unable to beat Enyeama however and once more Argentina were thwarted before half-time.
Enyeama’s efforts will have undoubtedly attracted the attention of the many managers from Europe’s preeminent leagues who were in attendance at today’s game.
The early second half was paced almost identically to the first. Messi, at the heart of every chance created by his country, caught Taiwo out with a precise rolled pass to Verón who returned the ball expertly to his compatriot. Man of the match Enyeama once again rescuing his country with a fine save.
Lagerbäck’s side desperately needed an injection of verve. It looked to have come in the 51st minute when Vfl Wolfsburg’s Obafemi Martins replaced the persistently obstructed Victor Obinna. Nigeria admirably attempted to fight their way back into contention but failed to create meaningful opportunities as cross after cross sailed harmlessly through the penalty area.
The brilliant Verón was replaced by Maxi in the 73rd minute, Maradona perhaps seeking to bring some cover for Gutierrez on the right. Argentina continued to threaten but were incapable of finding away past Enyeama, whose display was surely the best seen in this year’s competition thus far.
The Super Eagles’ best chance at an undeserved draw came in the final ten minutes. A magnificent cross was pulled behind the aligned Argentine defenders. Unfortunately for Icechukwu Uche the ball bounced uncomfortably in front of him preventing him from finding the target.
As they match drew towards its conclusion Argentina failed to keep control of the football, with some reckless passing allowing Nigeria to break forward. Nigeria’s valiant efforts came to nothing as the Albiceleste held on to secure what could be a vital opening victory. They finish the day behind the Republic of Korea on goal difference, with the game between the two sides on the 17th of June poised to decide the winner of the group.
For Lars Lagerbäck there is much work to be done. He may take solace from the inspiring efforts of his goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama. If he can coax performances of similar quality from his outfield players then their World Cup journey may not be over yet.