Porto Alegre (Brazil), Jun 25 (PTI): Argentina’s favourite son Lionel Messi once again showed his class with a fine brace to help Argentina edge past a resolute Nigeria 3-2 and top Group F with the African champions also qualifying for the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup here today.
Messi scored his third goal of the World Cup in as many matches to give the Latin American side a sublime start in the third minute.
Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria went free down the left flank but his left footer was saved by Nigerian goalkeeper Enyeama and the rebound was picked up soundly by Messi, who thundered it into the net on the half volley.
But the Argentinean celebration was shortlived as Nigerian forward Ahmed Musa levelled the score after a minute.
Musa received the ball from Michael Babatunde on the Nigeria left and curled a wonderful effort past Sergio Romero from inside the penalty area.
Only twice before have two goals been scored in the first four minutes of a World Cup match — Austria-Czechoslovakia (3rd min and 4th min) in 1954 and Soviet Union-Hungary (2nd min and 4th min) in 1986.
The game slowed down after the first two goals but strikes and counter strikes continued from both ends as the Argentinean forwards’ kept coming hard.
Di Maria’s three good strikes off the left foot were stopped by an alert Enyeama, who was kept busy.
Argentina continued to hold possession for a better part of the first half but the Nigerian defence stood tall.
But in stoppage time of the first half Messi’s mesmerising free kick gave Argentina a 2-1 lead.
After Nigerian centre-back Kenneth Omerou took down Messi, Argentina were awarded a free kick. The Barcelona star lifted the ball over the wall and Enyeama for once was powerless to stop the curling kick, which landed perfectly in the back of the net.
But Musa was not willing to give up as the Nigerian striker gave his team the equaliser in the 47th minute.
The No.7 found himself in space inside the Argentina box and hit a sidefooted finish past Romero, who got his 50th Argentinean cap.
Marcos Rojo put Argentina in the front once again in the 50th minute as the centre back scored his first international goal.
The corner was swung to the back post from the Argentina left, and after defender Ezequiel Garay nodded the ball back across the box, Rojo was there to knee the ball home.
Messi was finally withdrawn with half-an-hour left as the skipper went off the field amidst thunderous applause from the crowd with the job more or less done.
Argentina forwards, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Ezequiel Lavezzi — who came in for Messi, combined well to give the African giants many a scare could not find the net.
In a hard fought game, Nigeria failed to get a point but their entry into the next stage was made possible by Bosnia Herzegovina, who closed the doors on Iran with a 3-1 win in another Group F game.