Belfast Telegraph

Maradona surprises by taking sensible route to success

Argentina 1 Nigeria 0

By Tim Rich at Ellis Park, Johannesburg

He did not disappear as Franck Ribery did against Uruguay, he was more composed than Wayne Rooney had been in Rustenburg. If this is to be Lionel Messi's World Cup, he began as those who believe him to be the best footballer in the world, would have wanted.

He certainly did not start like a man exhausted and worn down by a season in La Liga, as Diego Maradona and his long-term fitness advisor, Fernando Signorini, claimed him to be when he arrived in South Africa. Perhaps he was merely trying to protect their most precious asset from the sort of overwhelming expectations that Maradona himself had to endure.

By dominating his press conferences and lightening the tension by aiming footballs at his players backsides in training, El Diego has made it easier for his players, although Gabriel Heinze, whose diving header was the only one of a mass of chances to find the net, joked that at least he would be able to sleep at night. Messi's constant running should have ensured he would fall into bed once back at the team hotel in Pretoria, although he admitted to being defeaned by the vuvuzelas.

For all the debates about how a man as mercurial as Maradona would cope with the tactical demands of a World Cup, his line-up proved remarkably sensible; he even ignored his son in law, Sergio Aguero, and only the employment of Newcastle's Jonas Gutierrez as a wing-back, where he was exposed consistently, appeared a gamble. From the off, Messi seemed a driven force, attacking the heart of a Nigerian defence, neither of whose key members, Joseph Yobo or Dannu Shittu were fully fit after a second half of a season spent mostly on the sidelines. If it was true that Nigeria's hastily-appointed coach, Lars Lagerback, had "a very good plan" to deal with the best footballer in the world in Johannesburg on Saturday afternoon, it quickly dissolved into a flurry of desperate tackling.

The Swede, whose decision to take charge of Nigeria has raised more eyebrows in Stockholm than Sven-Goran Eriksson's dalliance with the Ivory Coast, at least has a goalkeeper who in a series of instinctive saves shattered all the faint praise with which African keepers have been so traditionally damned.

Vincent Enyeama said the nearest he had come to Messi was watching the footballer on television in Israel, where he plays for Hapoel Tel Aviv. Asked to sum up his performance, the pick of which was an instinctive tip over the bar from Messi, Enyeama claimed it was down to God "my secret, my friend; he made me so calm out there."

Maradona, wearing a tight-fitting, three piece suit appeared anything but calm as he bounced around the touchline at Ellis Park, outraged by the treatment meted out by Nigeria's defenders in what proved a vain attempt to stop the boy wonder. "I want him to be always on the ball," he said. "Football would not be so beautiful, if you couldn't see Messi do crazy things."

This was a contest in which Argentina announced that from the very beginning of the competition they will go for every throat. However, they did the same in Germany four years ago, dismissing Serbia 6-0 in a performance that for coherence, assurance and especially for finishing surpassed this one. Lagerback, sensing an Argentinian defence that reeked of vulnerability, threw on first Obafemi Martins and then Peter Odemwingie and afterwards he was reluctant to heap too much praise on them, saying there were "many good teams" to beat before Maradona could think of winning a World Cup.

Argentina (4-4-2): Romero; Demichelis, Heinze, Samuel, Di Maria (Burdisso, 85); Gutierrez, Mascherano, Veron (Rodriguez, 74), Higuain (Milito, 79); Messi, Tevez.

Nigeria (4-3-3): Enyeama; Odiah, Shittu, Taiwo (Uche, 75), Yobo; Etuhu, Haruna, Kaita; Obasi (Odemwingie, 60), Obinna (Martins, 52), Yakubu.

Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany)


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