Thursday, February 29, 2024

Messi rocks big bowl

Lionel Messi dazzled in an otherwise under-whelming Argentina performance which still proved enough to negotiate an ultimately comfortable 3-1 victory over Nigeria in their international friendly match held at the Bangabandhu National Stadium (BNS) in Dhaka yesterday.
Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain claimed two of the goals, at least one of which was a stunning finish from a Messi chip behind the defensive line. Angel di Maria was the other scorer, but that goal too owed all but the final touch to Messi. The Argentine picked up the ball in midfield and as is his wont, put on a burst of acceleration that saw him sashay past numerous challenges. His placing shot was half-stopped by Nigeria goalkeeper Aiyenugba Dele, but Real Madrid winger di Maria was there to sweep home the rebound.
Nigeria fought back briefly, especially early in the second-half, as their strategy of hitting the ball beyond Argentina’s high full-backs started to reap dividends. Hoffenheim forward and second-half substitute Chinedu Obasi provided a smart finish after great work from Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel early in the second-half, but with Higuain’s finish the game was all but up.
The Bangabandhu National Stadium was almost packed to its 24,000 capacity when the side’s kicked-off after an elaborate opening session that included meetings with dignitaries and a mangled speaker during the national anthems.
There had been fears that even Messi’s Argentina would not be enough to draw the full house that was forecast initially, but a late response for tickets following the arrival of Argentina yesterday proved those fears baseless.
But whatever may be the case, the elongated opening seemed to take its toll on the players of both sides as the match proved a slow-burner with a cagey opening.
The first shot in anger came from Nigerians after swift interplay saw Ideye Browna unleash a speculative drive that sailed over.
That was that as far as action went for the opening 25 minutes after which the game suddenly spun into life.
First, Messi was left in a heap after a heavy tackle deep into his own territory. The crowd were suddenly silent but in a short while the Argentinean was back on his feet.
If there were any fears of him not being able to put up his best, it was put to rest just two minutes later.
Swift interplay between Jose Sosa and di Maria saw Messi get an inch of room just outside the area. And he responded perfectly, lifting a superbly weighted ball beyond the backline for Higuain. The Real front-man was emphatic, his volleyed effort giving no chance to the opposition goalkeeper.
The crowd went delirious as chants of Messi punctured the thick evening air.
But he was just getting started. Minutes later Messi showed exactly why he is the best player in the world.
Picking up the ball deep in midfield, he went on exactly the kind of fantasy run that every single paying soul in the stadium had prayed for when they trumped up 7,500 taka (100 dollars) for the cheapest tickets.
For seconds there was the silence of expectation as Messi rode one challenge after another. As he entered the penalty area and transferred the ball onto his left foot, everyone was waiting for the net to bulge. But they had forgotten that he was wearing the blue of Albiceleste, a kit in which Messi himself admitted, goals don’t come easy.
His shot was saved admirably, but the rebound was poked home by di Maria.
After that Argentina were in control for most of the game and even as Nigeria pulled a goal back late in the half their challenge petered out quickly.
Perhaps it was to do with a lack of support from the locals, a fact raised by captain Mikel in the press conference.
“I did not see much cheer when we were attacking,” said Mikel with a rueful smile, but if the Chelsea man had done his homework before stepping out at the Bangabandhu, he would have known that for this game there was only ever going to be one team.
So even though Argentina were not at their best, this was a performance, especially from Messi that would have whetted the appetites of those watching. Quality like this don’t come along often and to have the best player in the world adorn your home ground is a privilege many would pay an arm and a leg for.
For his part, Sabella finished the first two matches of his reign with two victories and given the history of Argentina coaches in the recent past, this will stand him in good stead as he aims to bring about wholesale changes in a squad, which in his own eyes, lacks balance and equilibrium.
Having a home crowd as adulating as the ones at the Bangabandhu National Stadium yesterday will surely help.


Courtesy of The Daily Star

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