The critics who said that Lionel Messi could not be counted as one of the best of all time until he had dominated a World Cup are on dangerous ground. -TNP
With two superb strikes in an exhilarating 3-2 win over Nigeria, the little Argentine now has four goals in just three games, the joint top scorer in the tournament with Neymar.
Messi started the World Cup slowly, but it looks like he's found his stride now.
Across Brazil, the home fans are getting nervous.
To make matters worse for everyone else, coach Alejandro Sabella was able to resist the temptation to leave him on in search of a hat-trick and withdrew him after only an hour. So when Argentina play their second round game, their star player will be fresh and fit.
Messi wasted little time in getting down to business.
Javier Mascherano found Angel di Maria with a perfectly-flighted through-ball from the halfway line and the Real Madrid man raced in on Vincent Enyeama's goal.
His shot cannoned off the post, back off the goalkeeper, back off the post again and then fell to Messi.
Had Enyeama been able to rise to his feet, the shot would have taken his head off.
With extraordinary power and great composure, the Barcelona star unleashed a thunderbolt that nearly ripped out the net.
Never let it be said that Nigeria crumbled under pressure.
Despite intense criticism after their opening goalless draw with Iran, Stephan Keshi's side bounced back with a fine 1-0 win over a very good Bosnian team.
That resolve was on display again here. Within 60 seconds of Messi's opener, Nigeria were level.
With Argentina over-excited and chasing a second goal, Michel Babatunde was able to break into space, racing towards the opposition back four and releasing the ball just in time to the lurking Ahmed Musa.
The CSKA Moscow man looked to have been forced too wide, but he had a plan. He cut in, looked up and sent the ball whistling into the corner of the goal.
With Bosnia comfortably beating Iran in the other game, a sense of calm descended upon the game as both teams knew that they were highly likely to progress, regardless of the score.
Perhaps with that in mind, Messi began to relax.
One free-kick was superbly saved by Enyeama, a fine diving stop.
He could do nothing about the next one, fired home on the stroke of half-time just moments later, though he didn't help himself with a woeful starting position.
But Nigeria still wouldn't capitulate.
It took just two minutes of the second half for Musa to equalise, taking advantage of some slack defending, but finishing with real style. Swift and confident, if a little raw, expect a few scouts to have taken note of Musa's performance.
Argentina seemed frustrated, irritated even at Nigeria's temerity.
They took the lead for the third time two minutes later, Marcos Rojo bundling home from an Ezequiel Lavezzi corner.
Still it didn't quell the Nigerian resistance.
With 12 minutes to go, Musa was again twisting and turning into the Argentine area, his effort to seal a hat-trick stopped only by a superb block from Pablo Zabaleta.
Poor Babatunde, architect of Nigeria's first goal, followed Messi off on the hour, but in less pleasant circumstances.
He had the misfortune to be standing in front of Ogenyi Onazi's powerful drive and the ball smashed into his wrist at awkward angle.
He left the pitch on a stretcher with his arm on a splint. He is unlikely to play any further part in the competition.
Argentina held out to seal top spot with maximum points.
They have not look completely convincing in any of their fixtures and yet you feel they are gather strength.
There is little in Group E for them to fear in the next round. But then there is little to fear anywhere when you have Messi on your side.
This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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