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article imageLionel Messi exploits space in midfield as Argentina tops Nigeria

By Tyrrell Meertins     Jun 25, 2014 in Sports
This wasn’t the first time Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria was susceptible to penetration between the lines, and it will serve as a great lesson ahead of their round of 16 tie against France.
Miralem Pjanic constantly exploited pockets of space in the final third as Bosnia Herzegovina easily moved into dangerous areas in their group stage encounter against Nigeria, but the World Cup debutants failed to turn their chances against goals.
Nigeria, however, started the match with a concrete approach against Alejandro Sabella’s side, but they didn’t remain compact out of possession. Emmanuel Emenike pressed Javier Mascherano, John Obi Mikel quickly closed down Fernando Gago, and Michel Babatunde was responsible for Angel Di Maria. This left Ogenyi Onazi with the duty of tracking Lionel Messi, in what proved to be an insurmountable task.
Keshi’s side attempted to press in midfield, but Babatunde’s reluctance to track Di Maria, saw the Argentinian shuttler torment goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama on several occasions. Di Maria was free to make a run into left half-space to receive a pass from Mascherano, and his shot on goal led to Messi’s opener. Babatunde isn’t renowned for his defensive abilities, and Di Maria was often the spare man in midfield that freely received the ball and forced Enyeama to stop his efforts from distance.
Sabella’s side encountered contrasting issues as their buildup play was narrow and laboured for large portions of the first half, as Nigeria’s wide players admirably tracked fullbacks Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta. When teams drop deep into their half, Sergio Aguero’s threat on the centre-back’s shoulder has been futile, while Gonzalo Higuain has failed to replicate his club form thus far.
Luckily for Argentina, Messi was the key man as he constantly popped into pockets of space to receive the ball before evading challenges and linking play. Unlike Argentina’s previous encounter against Iran –– where two or sometimes three players tracked the Argentinian –– Messi was at the cusp of Sabella’s side’s best moves.
The Argentinian talisman created two chances for Higuain that were squandered, his dazzling runs created space for his teammates to exploit, and he forced the Nigerian midfielders to commit desperate fouls. Messi provided two sensational free kicks in the latter stages of the first half that forced Enyeama into a save, whereas his second effort sailed into the net.
Nigeria’s attack was underwhelming overall apart from Ahmed Musa’s goals at the beginning of both halves. First, Babatunde ignited a swift counterattack that resulted in Musa’s curling effort beating Sergio Romero. Musa doubled his tally a minute into the second half when he ran onto a poor back pass from Gago and slotted his shot past Romero. Sabella’s side looked feeble when Keshi’s men broke on the counter, but they struggled to consistently move forward as a unit. Musa nearly completed his hat trick when substitute Michael Uchebo dispossessed Mascherano, and Emenike slipped a pass into the Nigerian winger, but Zabaleta blocked the 21-year-old’s shot.
Keshi’s side were brave in the second half, but the introduction of Ezequiel Lavezzi, not only offered the width Argentina required, it also enabled Sabella’s side to defend in two compact banks of four and break on the counter for the final 30 minutes. Similar, to other African sides participating in Brazil, without a creative midfielder,Keshi’s side couldn't bypass Argentina’s defence
"Messi is one heck of a player, you can't take it away from him. There are good calibre players in the Argentina team but Messi is from Jupiter,” Keshi said.
"But we lost because we gave too much respect to the Argentines and did not play our game."
This was a disappointing performance from a Nigerian side that offered very little going forward and conceded too much space in midfield.
"Nigeria are a versatile team, but they were not as aggressive when they occupy the spaces," said Sabella.
"We started improving from the point of view of structure. We see an improvement as a whole. I don't like speaking about individuals.”
Sabella will be worried about his side’s feeble defensive showing, but the absence of Aguero could see Lavezzi improve Argentina's structure without the ball and offer width in attack. Messi’s impact has guided Argentina into the round of 16, but his teammates will need to improve if they intend on featuring in this year’s final.
More about Fifa world cup, World Cup, Argentina, Nigeria, Lionel messi
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