PORTO ALEGRE: Lionel Messi scored twice to inspire Argentina to a thrilling 3-2 win over Nigeria yesterday which clinched top spot in World Cup Group F and sent home an army of Sky Blue supporters with smiles on their faces.
The few Nigerian fans in the crowd also left happy because their team advanced to the knockout phase thanks to Bosnia’s 3-1 win over Iran. Argentina finished on nine points, Nigeria on four, Bosnia three and Iran one.
The match at Beira Rio stadium was as close as Argentina will come to a home game at this World Cup as an estimated 150,000 fans flooded across the border into this southern port city looking to get in on the party and Messi made sure it started early with a fabulous strike in the third minute.
While some questions continue to hang over Argentina’s status as one of the tournament favourites, Messi’s performance through the group phase of the competition has been nothing short of sensational, impressing fans, team mates, coaches and opponents.
“Messi is one heck of a player, you can’t take it away from him,” Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said after Nigeria became the first African team to reach the last 16 in this tournament. “There are good calibre players in the Argentina team but Messi is from Jupiter.”
Although Argentina were guaranteed a place in the last 16, the twice champions still had plenty to play for on a drizzly day with top spot up for grabs and the soccer world waiting for the Sky Blues to flash their championship credentials after uninspiring wins over debutants Bosnia and unfancied Iran.
“It’s beautiful to see so many Argentine fans, I think we saw a very good Argentine team,” said Messi, after bringing his World Cup tally to four putting him level with Brazilian Neymar at the top of the list of leading scorers. “We want more.
“We had said we strikers were perhaps a little still and were not finding spaces. Now we corrected that.
“We continue in the search of the dream we all want.”
Already eliminated after two losses, Bosnia, appearing at a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation, went ahead in the 23rd minute through striker Edin Dzeko and doubled their lead just before the hour through Miralem Pjanic.
Reza Ghoochannejhad pulled a goal back for Iran in the 82nd minute but any chances of a nervous finish were swiftly put to bed just seconds later when a fine Avdija Vrsajevic strike restored Bosnia’s two-goal cushion.
“The win against Iran is scant consolation, but I congratulate my players for a display of commitment and passion against a team needing a win to keep alive their hopes of progressing,” Bosnia coach Safet Susic said.
“We lacked experience and cool heads at crucial moments in the opening two games but I cannot complain about effort. That’s just football,” adding that he still rued a Dzeko goal wrongly disallowed for offside in a 1-0 defeat by Nigeria.
Iran required all three points against Bosnia and a win for Argentina over African champions Nigeria to have any shot of grabbing a surprise place in the last 16.
While the Argentineans did their bit in beating the Super Eagles in Porto Alegre, Iran’s dream never looked like materialising in soggy Salvador, leaving Nigeria to advance on four points.