Lionel Messi is back.
After a lacklustre opening two World Cup fixtures, the 31-year-old produced a sublime touch and finish in the 14th minute off an exquisite pass from the newly installed Ever Banega to set Argentina on their way to the Round of 16 last night. The Barcelona star was in the mood for a fight and put in an industrious shift, making key tackles and providing forward impetus for a revitalised Albiceleste.
The goal was Messi’s sixth in World Cup history, and saw him become the first player in the tournament to score a goal as a teenager, in his 20s and in his 30s. He also surpassed Diego Maradona as the player with most completed dribbles in World Cup history since the data was recorded in 1966, breaking the record in his 18th World Cup game.
The relief was palpable as he went down to his knees in the corner, arms spread wide as he looked to the heavens. It was an ominous sign for opposing sides.
From his private box, a hysterical Maradona ranted and raved, celebrated, threw his middle fingers up at the Nigerians and eventually lost consciousness as he watched his countrymen deliver on their promise.
It’s just a pity that Messi chose the game against Nigeria for his return to form. With Iceland falling to Croatia in the group’s other fixture, the Super Eagles were on course for a place in the final 16 until a Marcus Rojo piledriver late on set off delirious celebrations and sealed a 2-1 victory. The Nigerians certainly deserved something from the game, after equalising from the spot through Victor Moses and spurning a couple of glorious opportunities. Senegal alone now carry African hopes.
The Albiceleste will now face France in a titanic clash, after the French played out a dour goalless draw with Denmark. It was the first scoreless encounter in the 2018 World Cup and both teams were booed off the park by the fans.
Later today, Brazil and Germany will stake their claims for a spot in the Round of 16. The giants of world football will have taken note of the Argentinean revival.