For Argentina's Lionel Messi, the best birthday gifts apparently come a day late.
One day after his 27th birthday, Messi scored twice more as Argentina finished off their perfect run through the FIFA World Cup group stage with a 3-2 victory over Nigeria on Wednesday at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Messi—a four-time former FIFA Ballon d'Or winner who was unseated as the world's top player by Cristiano Ronaldo last year—has four goals in three games at the current World Cup, tied with Brazil's Neymar for most in the tournament.
And if Argentina are to fulfill their potential in Brazil, the little magician will likely have to keep up his scoring pace.
Hailed as one of the favourites ahead of the World Cup by media sources like The Daily Telegraph and BBC Sport, Argentina disappointed somewhat in their first two matches, only for Messi to score winning goals against both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran.
Against Nigeria, Messi picked up where he left off, scoring the opener in just the third minute and adding Argentina's second, via a free-kick, just before half-time. He made way for substitute Ricardo Alvarez in the 63rd minute, presumably to stay fresh ahead of the knockout phase.
Marcos Rojo scored the other goal for Argentina, bundling in a corner early in the second half. Ahmed Musa found the net either side of half-time for Nigeria, twice pulling the Super Eagles level temporarily.
Both teams lost a player to injury, forcing each into substitutions. Argentina's Sergio Aguero left the match in the 38th minute, replaced by Ezequiel Lavezzi. Nigeria's Michel Babatunde departed in the 66th minute with an apparent broken arm, replaced by Michael Uchebo.
With the win, Argentina finished atop Group F with a 100 per cent record and nine points from their three opening matches. The Albiceleste will face the runners-up from Group E in the round of 16.
Nigeria, meanwhile, finished second in the group despite Wednesday's loss and became the first African team to progress to the knockout stage. The Super Eagles will face the winners of Group E—almost certainly France—in the round of 16.
As the five-goal scoreline would suggest, the match featured plenty of excitement. Within the opening four minutes, in fact, both teams had already scored.
Argentina found the scoresheet first, Messi slamming in the rebound after Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama had pushed Angel Di Maria's initial shot onto the near post. As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, the move leading up to the goal lasted for more than a minute and included 20 passes:
Nigeria pulled level only a minute later via Musa's first strike. Babatunde served as provider, driving through the heart of Argentina's midfield before laying off for Musa on the left. Musa cut back onto his right foot before curling a picturesque shot into the net at the far post.
The score remained 1-1 until late in the first half, though both teams had multiple chances to score before then. In stoppage time, moments after having one free-kick saved, Messi put Argentina ahead with another.
Setting up in a similar location to his previous attempt, Messi curled his second free-kick over the wall and into the net past Enyeama, who was unable to come close to saving.
The goal gave Argentina a 2-1 lead at half-time, but the advantage was short-lived. Nigeria leveled a second time, again through Musa, in the 47th minute.
Musa started the move himself this time, passing to Emmanuel Emenike in the middle before continuing his run toward the box. After receiving the pass back from Emenike, Musa side-footed in at the near post to make it 2-2.
It was an alarming defensive lapse for Argentina, but it didn't prove costly. Three minutes later, the Albiceleste regained their lead as Rojo redirected a corner into the net with his knee.
With the score 3-2 and 40 minutes remaining, it seemed a good bet that more goals would be coming. But Argentina managed to hold onto their lead this time, keeping their 100 per cent record intact heading into the group stage.
|Nigeria Player Ratings|
|John Obi Mikel||5||6|
|Michael Uchebo (for Babatunde, 66')||N/A||6|
|Uche Nwofor (for Odemwingie, 80')||N/A||5|
|Argentina Player Ratings|
|Angel Di Maria||8||7|
|Ezequiel Lavezzi (for Aguero, 38')||5||6|
|Ricardo Alvarez (for Messi, 63')||N/A||6|
|Lucas Biglia (for Higuain, 90')||N/A||No rating|
(All quotes via FIFA.com)
Argentina forward Lionel Messi:
We were better in this game, regardless of the goals we conceded. We were more threatening today, found the spaces to exploit and had more chances to score. But we still want more. The good thing is we improved and it’s a wonderful experience with the people here. We’re all still chasing a shared dream.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella:
We’d already qualified for the next round but it’s good to have finished top of the group, that’s what we were aiming for. We improved, were more mobile, passed the ball better and were quicker. We were better at changing the tempo of the game too, improved our interplay and had a lot of chances. The further into the tournament we go, the more we’re finding our rhythm. The structure of the side is getting much better.
Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi:
It’s an honour and we’re very happy to reach the next round. I think we lost the game because we showed them too much respect in the first half. After the break we managed to play our game, attacked more, had more possession and were better overall. But Argentina are a great team and Messi’s a great player. He’s blessed and there’s no way you can escape him. Messi’s from Jupiter.