Don’t let the headline fool you. Argentina were irresistible here, the scoreline only kept respectable by an outstanding performance from Vincent Enyeama in the Nigerian goal. A mainstay during qualification, the Hapoel Tel Aviv keeper was outstanding, denying Argentina’s talented attack with a series of increasingly impressive saves. But for him this might have been a cricket score. At the same time, future opponents will have been heartened by gaps in the Argentine defence that a better side might make more of.
Indeed, Nigeria themselves might have had the lead inside two minutes, Obasi Obguke skipping past Jonas Gutierrez before his nerves got the better of him and he flashed a cross-shot harmlessly across goal. Gutierrez was a makeshift right back, and at times it showed: the Newcastle winger was often caught out of position. He will likely have to get used to playing there – the squad is light on traditional full-backs – but Maradona clearly has faith in him, recently describing his team selection as ‘Mascherano, Messi, Jonas and eight more.’
Argentina were ahead after six minutes. Odea gave the ball away and Messi’s shot was well saved by Enyeama. From the resulting corner, Juan Sebastian Veron’s outswinging cross was found on the penalty spot by an unmarked Gabriel Heinze, who thumped a diving header into the net.
Of course all eyes were on Lionel Messi and he did not disappoint. Given an entirely free role by Maradona, he was popping up all over the pitch, involved in everything, drawing half a dozen first class saves from the excellent Enyeama. Rarely did he touch the ball without making something happen and he will have been baffled not to get on the scoresheet. Maradona’s greatest challenge is getting Messi to reproduce his Barcelona form in an Argentina shirt – something both have been criticised for failing to do in the past – but on this evidence, problem solved.
Nigeria grew into the game a little as the match progressed but still seemed laboured in possession and slow to react. Yakubu was left isolated, too often coming out wide to collect the ball and beating his man, only to look up and see an empty penalty area. Lars Lagerback prowled his technical area with increasing frustration as his players created decent opportunities only to be let down by poor play in the final third. He threw on Obafemi Martins for the disappointing Obinna and things improved. Unfortunately another substitution gave Nigeria no chance.
Because Peter Odemwingie put in comfortably the worst performance of the world cup so far, falling over the ball and misplacing passes at every opportunity. The Lokomotiv Moskow striker captained this side in the African Nations Cup earlier this year but on this evidence is lucky to even have a spot on the bench. Nonetheless his team so nearly drew level in a good spell of pressure late in the game, Taye Taiwo injuring himself while flashing a low drive inches wide of the post. His replacement Kalu Uche sent a shot over the bar after good work from Yakubu and Martins.
But they were unable to force their way through and, with Enyeama busily thwarting Argentina’s counterattacks, playing the game of his life up the other end, the score somehow remained 1-0. Argentina will know that but for the keeper this would have been comfortable; if Enyeama plays like that for the rest of the tournament and Nigeria can get midfield and attack working together they, too, will fancy their chances.