Nigeria sent out a team rich in experience, seeing fit to leave the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Obafemi Martins on the substitutes bench. In another surprising move, Chinedu Obasi of Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga was preferred on the left side of a front three to Peter Odemwingie. He and Victor Obinna were theoretically supporting Yakubu Aiyegbeni, the pivot of the attack. In terms of shape, Nigeria set out in the same 4-1-2-3 formation as Barcelona and Arsenal. However, this meant they conceded a lot of space in midfield to Argentina. Argentina’s man advantage was soon exploited. Juan Sebastian Veron moved regally about the midfield, spraying passes hither and thither, looking to release the mobile quartet of Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez ahead of him. With no pressure applied to the likes of Veron and Mascherano in midfield the ball was finding them with ease. Within minutes, Messi had wriggled through challenges on the left hand side, squaring for Gonzalo Higuain. With Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu at centre-back ponderous, Higuain had his blushes spared by the offside flag. Somehow he had managed to stab wide from eight yards.
A recurring theme was building up. Messi wriggled free of challenges and brought a fantastic save from Vincent Eneyeama in Nigeria’s goal. It was the first of several outstanding stops by the impressive goalkeeper. Unfortunately he was let down by slack marking from the resulting corner. Gabriel Heinze broke free from his marker on the edge of the area and planted a wonderful header into the top corner. Just six minutes had passed. Their defending from set-pieces disorganised, and allowing the talented Argentines so much time on the ball, it promised to be the first of many.
The game continued in such an open vein – Nigeria the antithesis of Lars Lagerback’s Sweden teams of previous World Cups. He may have been beginning to regret not designating a player to mark Messi, when he curled another effort goalwards, only again to be thwarted by Eneyeama. Lagerback had said: “We are playing Argentina, not Messi. So there will be no player given the special job to mark him.” Yet for much of the first half Messi was Argentina, at the hub of their attacks, linking beautifully with Veron in particular. This continued into the second period, with Messi and Veron exchanging passes before the latter fizzed a low cross into Messi from the right wing. A second goal would have defeated a disorientated Nigeria, but the ball edged across the penalty area and wide.
Lagerback had earlier emphasized the importance of unity: “When you play really good teams like Argentina with a lot of really good individuals, you have to have a very good team performance, otherwise you don’t win.” However, with the talismanic John Obi Mikel and Ikechukwu Uche missing from midfield and attack, Nigeria were finding it hard to function. Their forays forward were rare, and shots on target rarer still. Compounding the problems were their weaknesses attacking set-pieces. Such a vital component of Lagerback’s Sweden teams, Nigeria’s free-kicks and corners were especially poor. Neither Haruna Lukman nor Taye Taiwo were able to find their range, as a series of set-pieces were aimed too far beyond the back post or into Sergio Romero’s arms in Argentina’s goal.
Yet the longer the game remained 1-0, the more and more stretched it became. Spaces opened up further in the midfield. Just as Argentina looked likely to add to their lead, so too Nigeria began to threaten on the counter-attack. Kalu Uche and Obafemi Martins, on as second-half substitutes, missed good chances as Nigeria countered with aggression. With time running out, Argentina kept composed and kept possession. It was a frustrating end to the game for Nigeria – a game where for so long they were second best, yet were equally tenacious to hang on at 1-0 and could conceivably have equalised. On a day when the continent’s hopes were placed on their shoulders, Nigeria gave a glimmer of hope for their next two fixtures against Greece and South Korea. They may have been beaten, but they are far from out.