Saturday, 12 June 2010

Argentina 1 Nigeria 0, a classic World Cup encounter thanks to the goalkeeper Arsenal never signed

And so to our first classic World Cup encounter. Argentina’s 1-0 win over Nigeria was no yawn-a-minute yomp for the Latin Americans with the billionaire stars. It was a victory for art over craft, blood over sweat.

From the hairstyles to the coaches, you couldn’t have asked for a greater contrast. Argentina were all Messi skills and messy hair, Nigeria kept the score down through last-gasp tackles and last-ditch defending, not to mention a string of saves from man of the match Vincent Enyeama.

Clad in canary yellow, the Nigerian goalkeeper – who once agreed a £2m fee with Arsenal a year ago - denied Barcelona’s masterful Lionel Messi three times in the first half and produced two further superb saves in the second. How he denied the little master in the 81st minute, we’ll never know.

The 27-year-old from Hapoel Tel Aviv in Israel, was winning his 54th cap and hard put a finger wrong. Arsene Wenger, you missed out on a super-duper Super Eagle.

But there was nothing Enyeama could do when, after just six minutes, the German-speaking Argentine Gabriel Heinze stormed in to head what turned out to be the winning goal. Quite a day for Manchester United fans. Ji-Sung Park scored a cracker for South Korea in their earlier win against Greece, and here was Heinze, a former Old Trafford star, full of beans.

Almost from the kick-off, this one oozed global quality and excitement, so unlike last night’s awful bore-draw between France and Uruguay. Another former Manchester United man, 35-year-old Juan Sebastian Veron, prompted and probed while Manchester City’s former Old Trafford striker Carlos Tevez just never stopped harrying, probing, working.

Detailed to stop this vast array of talent? One Danny Shittu, formerly of Watford and QPR, who failed to get a game in the Premier League for Bolton Wanderers last season. And he made a fair fist of it.

But it was Messi, the little man who needed growth hormone treatment to reach 5ft 6in, who glittered and shone. How many times did the Nigerians have to stop him with ghastly tackles and desperate lunges, not to mention Enyeama’s golden gloves?

And throughout, there was demented Diego Maradona, shouting and screaming, while Nigeria’s ice-cool Swedish coach Lars Lagerback whispered and prodded.

In the end, we will say Argentina have all it takes to win the World Cup, aside from a sane coach. But that doesn’t tell the story of how close Nigeria came to a leveller on the break as they struggled for 40 percent of the possession.

A day of contrast, green vuvuzelas... and a vast gathering of increasingly desperate Nigerians. They caused 15 injuries when the local migrant population attempted to gain access in a crush during their friendly against North Korea in Tembisa last week. The jolly green army were no less passionate at Ellis Park yesterday, where South Africa won the 1995 rugby World Cup, as portayed by Hollywood and Clint Eastwood in the film Invictus.

But there was to be no last-minute drop goal to change things here. Though former Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins tested Sergei Romero in the Argentine goal 12 minutes from time, it always looked like Argentina, ranked 7 in the world, were going to be a little too slick for Nigeria, ranked 21.

In truth, there were chances at both ends as the altitude burned the lungs late on. And you suspect both these sides will be too strong for South Korea, 47, who beat Greece, 13, in the opening Group B clash earlier in the day.

Especially when you consider they were able to bring on Diego Milito, the two-goal hero of Inter Milan’s Champions League final win over Bayern Munich last month, as a late sub. You have been warned, these Argentines are the best of the eight teams we’ve seen so far.

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