News / Americas

World Cup: Where Messi Leads, Argentina Must Follow

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Iran during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte June 21, 2014.
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Iran during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte June 21, 2014.
Reuters
After underwhelming early performances, traditional Latin American top dogs Argentina and reigning African champions Nigeria have something to prove when they meet in their final World Cup Group F match on Wednesday.

Argentina was among the favorites going into the tournament but despite a much-vaunted front four, they have yet to come alive, with the exception of some moments of match-winning magic from Lionel Messi.

Nigeria, representing Africa's richest and most populous nation, has also labored to convince as a team.

Nonetheless, Argentina sits atop Group F with six points thanks to their less-than-emphatic wins over Bosnia and Iran.

The Sky Blues have already qualified for the Round of 16 but will still want finish first to ensure an easier opponent - in principle at least - in the next stage.

Nigeria has four points following a dull draw with Iran and a win over first-timers Bosnia. A draw would be enough to ensure qualification but a loss to Argentina could put them in trouble.

Iran, which surprised many with its tenacious, bold play against Argentina, could still seize second place its team beats Bosnia and racks up a better goal difference.

So a game that could see as much anxiety as adventure is on the cards.

Messi's sublime strike against Iran in stoppage time in Belo Horizonte only highlighted the danger of Argentina relying on the Barcelona man too much. It wasn't supposed to be like that.

Need to step up the pace

He and his fellow strikers Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria form what should have been one of the most formidable attack forces in the tournament, but so far it has been rather blunt.

The defense has also looked shaky, with central defender Ezekiel Garay repeatedly caught off guard against Iran.

“We have a few causes for concern,” head coach Alejandro Sabella admitted after the close-shave against Iran.

With other Latin American teams such as Chile and previously unheralded Costa Rica powering ahead and delighting fans along the way, Argentina will need to step up the pace if they are to quickly regain what they see as their rightful place at the front.

“We know we are not playing as well as we are expected,” Messi said. “But as we go along in the tournament, we will be improving and we will reach our full potential.”

Argentina will be able to count on fervent support - tens of thousands of fans are expected to flood over the border into the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, a region which shares its gaucho culture but harbors an intense soccer rivalry.

Nigeria may take heart from the fact that they made a slow start in the African Nations Cup before going on to take the title last year.

The Super Eagles cannot afford to give anything away at the back but will need to hunt for goals if they are to be sure of qualifying for the Round of 16 for the first time since 1998.

Playing in their fifth World Cup, Nigeria's performance against Bosnia was an improvement over the Iran game, when they looked bereft of ideas. But their defensive frailties were exposed on several occasions and that could prove fatal with a hungry wolf like Messi on the prowl.

Click here to check out our special World Cup site
  • Russia's Sergey Ignashevich fights for the ball with Belgium's Divock Origi during their match at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, June 22, 2014.
  • Belgium's Divock Origi scores against Russia during their match at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, June 22, 2014.
  • A spectator holds up a message for Russia before the start of the 2014 World Cup Group H soccer match against Belgium at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, June 22, 2014.
  • A fan of South Korea shouts before their match against Algeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, June 22, 2014.
  • South Korea's Son Heung-min scores past Algeria's Rais Mbolhi during their match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, June 22, 2014.
  • Algeria's Yacine Brahimi (11) scores against South Korea during their match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, June 22, 2014.
  • From left: Algeria's Mohamed Lamine Zemmamouche, Rafik Halliche, Nabil Bentaleb, Yacine Brahimi, Essaid Belkalem and Sofiane Feghouli celebrate their win over South Korea at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre, June 22, 2014.
  • A fan shows his colors before the match between Portugal and U.S. at the Amazonia arena in Manaus, June 22, 2014.
  • Clint Dempsey of the U.S. watches after knocking the ball into the net against Portugal at the Amazonia arena in Manaus, June 22, 2014. 
  • Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (7) watches teammate Nani (17) score a goal during their match between against the U.S. at the Amazonia arena in Manaus, June 22, 2014.

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