This was the first day of the 2010 World Cup where the day’s early match kicked off to a full stadium. Either the police are better at controlling the flow of traffic than the stewards who are currently on strike, or this simply looked a good game. Argentina v South Korea looks very nice written down, and for once the match lived up to expectations.
South Korea had been excellent against an awful Greece side in their opening game; Nigeria’s goalkeeper had restricted Argentina to a single goal. The teams set out their stalls early on and it was immediately clear South Korea were set up to contain. Argentina attacked from the first whistle and had already spurned numerous chances before finally taking the lead after sixteeen minutes.
Leo Messi, outstanding once again, curled in a free kick from the left that was missed by one Korean defender and an Argentine attacker, and poor Park Chu-Young never saw it coming. The ball bounced off the inside of his foot and past his goalkeeper, and Argentina had their lead.
South Korea responded well and might have equalised within sixty seconds, Ki Sung-Yeung’s 25 yard drive dipping a fraction too late. Argentina remained a constant threat, Messi given the same free role he occupied against Nigeria, popping up everywhere, Tevez, Di Maria and Higuain buzzing around him. This was, if not the best, then certainly the most productive attacking display of the tournament so far.
Tevez made the second by doing what he does best: chasing a lost cause and somehow getting himself fouled. Messi knocked the freekick short to Maxi, the Liverpool winger crossed, Mascherano flicked on and the ball fell to Gonzalo Higuain at the back post. The Real Madrid striker wasted a host of chances against Nigeria but could not miss here, his downward header doubling Argentina’s lead.
Messi would have had a hat-trick against Nigeria but for the goalkeeping performance of the tournament and he was in no mood to be denied again, running at the defence, finding himself with six defenders around him but still squeezing a shot away that trickled wide. Amazingly he would end a second game without a goal, but he had a hand in all four of Argentina’s goals.
South Korea pulled a goal back with the last kick of the half and it was route one stuff, Lee Chung-Yong robbing Demichelis on the edge of the area as he brought a goal kick under control, firing past Romero in the Argentine goal. It had echoes of Switzerland’s goal against Spain but the difference was stark: Argentina had done enough with their possession for the odd defensive lapse not to matter.
South Korea came out in the second half with a little more intent, sensing a result was within their grasp. They should have drawn level when, breaking three on two, Yeom Ki-Hun had the ball on the right and with two options square of him elected to shoot, firing into the side netting. His face made it clear that he, too, knew he had just missed his side’s best chance to draw level.
It was another quarter of an hour before he was proven right, Messi exchanging passes in the centre circle with the substitute Sergio Aguero, bombing into the penalty area and firing straight at the keeper. The ball rebounded straight to him but his second effort bounced off the post, straight into the path of Higuain who tapped home a simple second.
Higuain completed his hat-trick just four minutes later, the best move of the game seeing Messi dink a ball over the defence for the excellent Aguero to play back across goal with the outside of his boot. All Higuain need do was nod it in at the near post for the first Argentine World Cup hat-trick since Gabriel Batistuta against Jamaica in 1998.
Two goals in such quick succession killed any fading hopes of a South Korean revival, but they go into their final game against Nigeria knowing that a win will likely send them through to the second round.
Argentina look absolutely terrifying and it should be borne in mind that Messi hasn’t scored yet, and Champions League winner Diego Milito has only had a brief cameo against Nigeria so far. This is a team that started brilliantly and is only going to improve. Maradona, openly mocked in the run-up to the tournament, is setting about proving his critics wrong in some style.