Lionel Messi only has one thing on his mind now.
After celebrating his birthday on Tuesday, the 27-year-old ran out for his country to face Nigeria on Wednesday and duly scored for the third successive World Cup game—getting his third and fourth goals of the competition as he helped his side to a 3-2 win.
Argentina finished Group F with three wins, nine points, six goals scored and three conceded. They are into the last 16, and few teams will want to take them on.
Messi was withdrawn with nearly a third of the game still to play on Wednesday, such was his dominance and Argentina's comfortable position. But now the big games really begin—there can be no slip-ups if the Albiceleste are to fulfill their public's demands and reach next month's final in the Maracana.
To do that, more of Messi's team-mates will need to up their game, as surely the Barcelona star cannot continue to make the difference every single game. There was an improvement in that regard on Wednesday, but there is still much progress to be made.
"We played against a team that wanted to play," Messi told reporters (per BBC). "I think we saw a good Argentina. We need to continue on this path."
Their first knockout opponent in that bid will be Switzerland, who secured second in Group E thanks to a 3-0 victory over Honduras later the same day. Xherdan Shaqiri was the hero, the winger scoring all three goals as Ottmar Hitzfeld's side moved on to the latter stages of the competition.
Switzerland appear, at least on paper, to be a poor imitation of Argentina—with one star player elevating a mixed supporting case of lesser talents. If that is the case, then Alejandro Sabella's side should progress with ease, although there is no such thing as a certainty in this World Cup.
Switzerland's group was topped by France, who drew with Ecuador in their final game and were rewarded with a last 16 date with Nigeria. Didier Deschamps' side continued to look one of the most impressive units of the competition, with even a few changes to the first XI barely affecting their poise on the ball. If they had really needed to beat Ecuador to move on, they surely would have done so.
France are in Brazil's half of the draw but cannot meet the hosts until the semi-finals. Germany will likely stand in their way before that, but even at this premature juncture that is an enticing prospect.
Results in brief - Day 14
Nigeria 2-3 Argentina
(Musa (2); Messi (2), Rojo)
Bosnia & Herzegovina 3-1 Iran
(Dzeko, Pjanic, Vrsajevic; Reza)
Honduras 0-3 Switzerland
Ecuador 0-0 France
Argentina and Nigeria progress from Group F. France and Switzerland progress from Group E.
Last 16 fixtures:
Argentina vs. Switzerland (Tuesday July 1, Sao Paulo)
France vs. Nigeria (Monday June 30, Brasilia)
1. Notes from Day 14
The fine margins... Ecuador needed to beat France 2-0 to progress at the expense of Switzerland on Wednesday, something they were not quite able to do. But their eventual 0-0 draw would have been more than good enough had they defended better in the final minute of their meeting with the Swiss and not conceded a late losing goal. That would have left them with five points instead of two, and Hitzfeld's side would be going home with four. The margins between glory and disappointment...
Fifty and counting... Shaqiri's hat-trick was the 50th hat-trick at a World Cup. Store that piece of trivia away for the next football-related pub quiz you go to...
A missed opportunity... Bosnia and Herzegovina will surely be kicking themselves at their missed opportunity, as they finally found some goalscoring form in their final, meaningless game against Iran. But could things have been different if the fixtures had operated in a different way? If they had played Iran first and beaten them comfortably, might that have propelled them to a more successful campaign? We will never know.
Golden Boot race is tight... At the moment, Messi and Neymar lead the goalscoring charts with four apiece, but it is the Argentine who is currently on course to win the Golden Boot. Why? Because his goals have come in exactly six fewer minutes (243 compared to 249) than his club team-mate's. That early substitution against Nigeria might come to prove more important than anyone could have thought.
2. Quote of the Day
Messi is one of heck of a player. He's blessed. You can't take it away from him.
There are good calibre players in the team but Messi is from Jupiter.
- Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi (per BBC)
3. Tweet of the Day
Big moment for African coaches: Stephen Keshi is the 1st African to take an African team to the World Cup knockout stages. #NGA— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) June 25, 2014
4. Goal of the Day
Xherdan Shaqiri with a fantastic strike into the top corner. 1-0 Switzerland. http://t.co/N5tNXGD2Nw— Football Vines (@Vine_Football) June 25, 2014
Sorry Messi, you are no doubt getting enough praise elsewhere. He added two more, but Shaqiri's opener was an absolute beauty.
5. A good day for...
France. Not only did they qualify comfortably at the top of Group E, but they now know they will face Nigeria in the last 16—a prospect they would have been more than happy with had they been offered it at the start of the tournament.
Not only that, but the quarter-final leaves them likely to face either Germany or Algeria, another favourable proposition (Germany will be no pushover, but based on performances in Brazil it is a game that probably slightly favours Deschamps' side). The path to the semi-final is not too bad for Les Bleus, can they take advantage?
6. A bad day for...
Liverpool. As they wait, no doubt anxiously, for news of FIFA's sanctions against Luis Suarez, Liverpool officials could only watch on as one of their rumoured transfer targets scored a hat-trick in a World Cup. Whatever price they were hoping to pay for Shaqiri, they might have to add a few million pounds to it now...
7. Tomorrow's schedule
United States vs. Germany (Group G: 5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET)
A draw will put both sides through to the knockout rounds—could we see an understanding reached in this one? It seems unlikely, considering the competitive nature of both teams and their managers. Jurgen Klinsmann will be desperate to beat his homeland, but Germany will be a tougher challenge than either Ghana or Portugal were.
Portugal vs. Ghana (Group G: 5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. ET)
Win and hope is the order of the day for both sides, with Portugal in particular needing things to go their way if they are to reach the knockout stages. Much will depend on the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo—if, as expected, he remains some way from his best, then it is difficult to see Paulo Bento's side getting their first win of the competition.
Algeria vs. Russia (Group H: 9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET)
A draw should be enough to send Algeria to the knockout stages, unless South Korea produce something spectacular against Belgium. Russia have looked hard to break down in this World Cup but have had a glaring lack of attacking invention—that will need to change if they are going to get the win they need.
South Korea vs. Belgium (Group H: 9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. ET)
Belgium, already through, can experiment a bit in this one, while South Korea need a big win if they want to have any chance of reaching the last 16. Their lack of big-game nous was cruelly exposed by Algeria in their last game—if Belgium play any of their most dangerous attacking talents they could enjoy a goalfest.