Messi gives Argentina winning start against Bosnia
Argentina 2 Bosnia & Herzegovina 1
THIS was a game of two halves. The first messy, the second memorable because of Messi.
Lionel rarely needs first-name introduction but, by his own high standards, the 26-year-old was anonymous for the opening chunk of his entrance to this World Cup at an expectant Maracana.
Argentina, who held an unconvincing advantage at the interval, needed a reshuffle from manager Alejandro Sabella at the break to bring their star man into proceedings.
The reversion from a 5-3-2 to a hybrid 4-3-3 allowed the diminutive genius to impact the game from a deeper role with the support of both Sergio Aguero and half-time arrival Gonzalo Higuain.
It paved the way for a magic moment 20 minutes after the restart as Messi, who knows this can be his defining tournament, engineered a quick one-two with Higuain, dropped the shoulder and shuffled away from a posse of Bosnian pursuers who were tripping over each other in comical fashion as the superstar's left footer found the back of the net off the inside of the post.
The 74,738 crowd rose in appreciation. Resourceful Argentina fans made a racket throughout by securing a volume of tickets that far exceeded their allocation but the Bosnians were adopted by the locals who feel no love towards their neighbours and longstanding rivals and taunted them about Brazil's five World Cup successes. Nevertheless, they enjoyed the Messi clip for the highlights reel.
Argentina, the champions in 1978 and 1986, haven't made it past the quarter finals since they lost the 1990 decider to Germany, gaining a reputation as a side that flatter to deceive.
They didn't really succeed in building expectation last night, however, with coach Alejandro Sabella left with plenty to ponder as La Selección failed to adapt to his original gameplan and then risked disaster at the death when sub Vedad Ibisevic halved the top seeds' advantage and set up a nervy conclusion.
For Bosnia, just being here represented a remarkable story considering that it's just 19 years since they played their first international match in Albania and, on that occasion, they had to bring along a couple of retired players to make up the numbers in a fixture where they wore jerseys purchased on the move in a Zagreb sports shop.
They have high expectations though and came here off the back of a volatile build-up featuring spats between their fiery boss Safet Susic and a couple of players, including a public war of words with Edin Dzeko after the March friendly loss to Egypt.
Much as this team is making history, they don't want to be left behind early in this tournament and they showed enough across the 90 minutes to suggest they have a fighting chance of qualification in a group completed by Iran and Nigeria who meet in Curitiba today.
A weaker unit would have struggled to recover from a catastrophic opening to their big day. The game was only three minutes old when a Messi free was clipped into the box, wing back Marcos Rojo flicked it on and unfortunate Bosnian defender Sead Kolasinic turned it into his own net after being caught off balance and making it worse by trying to correct the situation. The blue and white shirted masses roared their approval.
The Balkan nation dusted themselves down quickly and admirably. Susic had made it clear beforehand that he would abandon his usual modus operandi for this game, opting to go with Dzeko as a solitary striker and leaving his regular accomplice, Stuttgart's Ibisevic, on the bench. He deployed a 4-2-3-1 with withdrawn midfielders Muhamed Besic and the talented Miralem Pjanic prominent as Bosnian resolution steadied the ship. Besic, based in Hungary, was earmarked beforehand as an intelligent operator who could help stifle Messi when he wandered and those skills were apparent as he led the posse that surrounded the Barcelona star at every opportunity. He didn't have a huge amount of help either.
Steadily, the underdogs grew into the game and they succeeded in challenging Argentina's five man defence with Izet Hajrovic inches away from connecting with an inventive Senad Lulic pass before the latter was overlooked by Dzeko when the Man City striker blasted over with time to pick out his colleague. Lulic, who plies his trade for Lazio, then rose highest to test Sergio Romero with a bullet header. With Argentina laboured in the centre of the park, they headed for the dressing room as unhappy half-time leaders.
Sabella knew change was necessary and called for Barcelona target Gonzalo Higuain to bolster a three-man attack with Fernando Gago also replacing the ineffective Maxi Rodriguez in midfield with extra defender Hugo Campagnaro sacrificed.
This warm night's Plan B, which is usually Plan A, was slow to work the oracle as Bosnia continued to prevail in key battles and apply pressure. As the hour mark approached though, Messi began to deliver ominous signs of intent, springing to life in the final third when a Hajrovic howler gifted him possession before Aguero's shot from the little man's through ball was gathered by Stoke's Asmir Begovic.
Any sense of Bosnian relief was short lived as Messi made them pay with his next foray to seemingly put the result beyond all doubt. Susic's charges are a stubborn lot, though, and a clever run from Ibisevic culminated with a tame shot that crept past Romero to set the stage for a nail-biting finish.
Argentina managed to see it out, while leaving oodles of room for improvement. This will probably be the hardest test they face in the group stage, so they do have the luxury of time to find their stride. With Messi in their armoury, anything is possible.
Argentina: Romero, Zabaleta, Campagnaro [Higuain 45], Garay, F Fernandez, Rojo; Rodriguez [Gago 45], Mascherano, Di Maria; Aguero [Biglia 87], Messi
Bosnia & Herzegovina: Begovic, Mujdza [Ibisevic 68], Bicakcic, Spahic, Kolosinac; Pjanic, Besic; Hajrovic [Visca 70] , Misimovic [Medunjanin 73], Lulic; Dzeko