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Stunning Messi out of this world - Nigeria boss hails striker as being 'from Jupiter' as Argentina shine

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Argentina's Lionel Messi scores on a free kick during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Argentina's Lionel Messi scores on a free kick during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Argentina's Marcos Rojo (16) scores their third goal during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Argentina's Marcos Rojo (16) scores their third goal during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Nigeria's John Obi Mikel, left, takes a shot at goal, which was stopped by Argentina's Sergio Romero, centre, during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Nigeria's John Obi Mikel, left, takes a shot at goal, which was stopped by Argentina's Sergio Romero, centre, during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Nigeria's Joseph Yobo fights for the ball with Argentina's Ezequiel Lavezzi, right, during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Nigeria's Joseph Yobo fights for the ball with Argentina's Ezequiel Lavezzi, right, during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Argentina's Marcos Rojo celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Argentina's Marcos Rojo celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

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Argentina's Lionel Messi scores on a free kick during the 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Nigeria at the Beira Rio stadium in Porto Alegre. Photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Lionel Messi did something here that we had not seen from him at this World Cup. Not the goals, or the casual, match-winning brilliance. That was old news. It came at the end of the first half, just after he had scored from a free-kick, as he was being mobbed by happy team-mates, as the Argentinian fans were chanting his name over and over.

As he emerged from the huddle came that rarest of sights: a huge, beaming smile. Finally, at his third World Cup, in his 10th World Cup match, Messi was enjoying himself. It's a strange thing, pressure: it comes from many sources, but ultimately the main one is yourself.

Nobody would have been more aware of Messi's failure to reproduce his own stratospheric standards at a World Cup than himself. But Nigeria manager Stephen Keshi suggested that his performance yesterday was not of this planet.

"Messi is from Jupiter. He is different. He is one hell of a player. You can't take it away from him," Keshi reflected.

Now, as his fourth goal of the tournament sailed in as serenely as Argentina were sailing into the last 16, it was as if an enormous weight had been lifted. Not that Messi had it all his own way. Nigeria scrapped like tigers, making them earn the win until the very last moment. Two equalisers from Ahmed Musa turned this into a two-man show, until Marcos Rojo scored what turned out to be the winning goal five minutes into the second half.

Midfielder Ogenyi Onazi was employed in the world's most thankless defensive assignment: marking Messi. He followed him left, followed him right, never let him leave his sight, and still it was like trying to eat soup with a fork.

Nigeria's centre-blocking tactics relied on their wingers Musa and Peter Odemwingie tracking back to plug the gaps, but within three minutes Odemwingie went to sleep. He failed to spot the run of Angel Di Maria, who gathered Javier Mascherano's superb diagonal pass and unleashed a shot that squirmed through the hands of Vincent Enyeama, came back off the post, and ran free, in the direction of the one man you do not want it to go to.

Messi had a free swing from 12 yards, but even so, there were four players blocking the goalmouth. No matter. Messi thrashed it high into the roof of the net. True genius turns the miraculous into the mundane.

Perhaps Messi's insouciance lulled his team-mates into thinking the game already won. Less than a minute later, they paid for it. John Obi Mikel, freed from his Stamford Bridge shackles and playing an energetic box-to-box role here, released Musa down the left. Pablo Zabaleta was slow to close, and Musa was able to curl a shot from 20 yards that arced just inside the far post, beyond Sergio Romero's dive. A brilliant goal, and the first time in history that both teams had scored in the first five minutes of a World Cup match.

And so, with the scores effectively reset, the game settled into the pattern it had always augured: Argentina pressing, prodding, probing, Nigeria staunch in defence and sharp on the break. The chances, in the main, were Argentina's: Gonzalo Higuain rounded the 'keeper but hit the side of the net. Rojo put a header wide. Juwon Oshaniwa made a crucial block as Sergio Aguero squeezed the trigger from 10 yards. Shortly after that, Aguero went off with an injury.

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A couple of minutes after a 28-yard Messi free-kick, palmed away by Enyeama, came another, a little closer. Messi barely appeared to hit it at all: instead, it arced like the sun, untroubled and unstoppable. Enyeama didn't even bother to dive. Messi had done it again. As he jogged towards the Argentinian fans, now grinning from ear to ear, they bowed down en masse before him.

But if Argentina ended the first half by unleashing their deadliest, they began the second by exposing their most serious flaw. Their central defenders stood flat-footed as Emmanuel Emenike cleverly flicked the ball into the path of Musa, who ran through on goal before finishing low past Romero.

Nigeria were level for just three minutes, Messi's corner poked home from close range by the knee of Rojo. And thereafter, though Nigeria threatened, there was always a sense that Argentina had consciously shifted into a lower gear.

Messi came off after an hour, to the sort of reception that would have embarrassed the Pope. Di Maria continued to pester. Ezequiel Lavezzi, Aguero's replacement, looked sharp.

Musa missed two chances to complete a brilliant hat-trick: first volleying the ball over from 20 yards, and then cutting inside and being denied by a brilliant block from Zabaleta. But Iran's defeat meant Nigeria qualified anyhow: a last-16 game against France awaiting them.

Perhaps that contributed to the carnival atmosphere that bathed the last few minutes of this game: a celebration of this captivating tournament, a stage fit for the greatest of heroes. (© Independent News Service)


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