Messi drags Argentina to Victory

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As the nation with the most intimidating attack at the finals, Argentina don’t need any favours scoring goals. Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, and Sergio Aguero started this match, with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gonzalo Higuain on the bench. Aguero was probably short-odds favourite to win the Golden Boot this year. Meanwhile, while they are able to look to Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko and Roma’s Miralem Pjanic in attack, Bosnia and Herzegovina are very much minnows in these Finals. So when these two teams met at a crackling Maracana stadium, those who warm to the ‘plucky underdog’ in any given sporting affair were disappointed to see Bosnia and Herzegovina score the fastest own goal in World Cup history. Within two minutes, Sead Kolasinac had clipped a Messi free kick past his own keeper and the World Cup’s best attack had a gift they didn’t need, but were happy to have. Messi’s delivery was a venomous one, whipping in with speed and curl, and clipping a head somewhere in the maul before hitting Kolasinac on the shin. He might have reshuffled his feet a little quicker, but he didn’t and Argentina were 1-0 up.

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Dzeko and his team would have been winded badly by such an awful start, but they rallied admirably, or maybe Argentina didn’t force the issue enough after scoring. Argentina might have poured forward to attempt to end the game in the first 15 minutes, ala Chile, so Bosnia needed a Tim Cahill figure to step up and calm things. Dzeko, Pjanic and Izet Hajrovic all forced BIH back into the game, and exposed Argentina’s vulnerabilities in defence, with a number of opportunities coming from excellent set pieces. A Lulic bullet header from a BIH corner forced a particularly good save from Romero down low to his left. Earlier, a beautiful Harjovic through ball, lifted over the defence, was just out of reach of the striker, who couldn’t control it. But generally, BIH were growing into the match, holding the ball and looking to compete with the two-time champions. There were whistles and jeers around the Maracana during the spells that BIH held the ball, but they were unswayed by the lack of support and went into the half still only one down, and with more shots (and shots on target) than the Argentinians. For Argentina, Messi had made a number of threatening dribbles, as he does, and Di Maria had popped up sporadically with a driving run or two, but other than that there were few gilt-edged chances for Argentina. Though for those watching, there was always the looming spectre of Messi eventually getting a proper shooting opportunity at the end of one of his slaloms.

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A double change was made by Argentina at half time, Fernando Gago and Higuain on for Rodriguez and Campagnaro. Yet it was BIH who dominated the early stages of the second half, with a sort of 1-on-1 battle occurring between Romero and Hajrovic. A number of shots from open play and a free kick from Hajrovic all had to be dealt with by the Argentinian keeper. BIH had a couple of corners in the first 15 minutes of the second half as well, and caused some problems with them. Sergio Aguero had Argentina’s best opportunity of this same period, but he spooned his shot badly after terrific work from Messi to give him the opportunity. With half an hour remaining, the on-target shot count was 7-3 in favour of BIH, but they were yet to equalise.

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That’s when Messi decided he should stop playing around, he’d had enough of giving other players scoring chances, so he just made one for himself. He began dribbling about 30 metres out, laying the ball off, then collecting it right back. The other Argentina attackers seemed to remove themselves from the situation, preferring to let Messi go to work alone. He sped inwards from the right, skipping past every challenge. With a parcel of open space in front of him, just on the edge of the box, he let fly with a low, hard shot, that spun over the line via the left post. A glorious, perfectly Messi-style goal. He celebrated ravenously, success on the highest of stages. Argentina went 2-0 up, and were suddenly buoyed by their captain’s brilliance.

They almost scored a few minutes later, a chip that went right across the face of goal, then a free kick, won by the now electrified Di Maria, that went straight through the danger zone and out the other side. The partisan crowd were bellowing for Argentina, and BIH were deflated. Susic, the BIH manager, rearranged his team (Hajrovic and Mismovic coming off for Visca and Medunjavin) to almost a 4-2-4 formation to try and get his attack going, a risky strategy if he wanted to avoid a heavier defeat. But it was still all Argentina, and Aguero smashed a shot wide in the 76th minute. Higuain had a great opportunity, crafted by Messi, that he spurned a few minutes later. Argentina were now playing with more confidence and calmness, having actually scored themselves and gained the two-goal cushion. Garay effortlessly defused what might have been a promising BIH attack as the clock approached the 80th minute. Then Messi led a counter attack that was one Bosnian defender’s toe away from being converted.

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Romero made his first error of the night, and it was a bad one, that re-enlivened the contest with 6 minutes to go. From a perfectly weighted through ball, Vedad Ibisevic touched the ball straight through the Argentine keeper, and it rolled over the line. The first Bosnia and Herzegovina goal in a World Cup Finals. Bosnia now were suddenly energised, the momentum shifting again. Aguero came off as Argentina looked to defend their one goal lead. They did, and almost added to it again at the end. Bosnia and Herzegovina will be disappointed not to have equalised in the first half, but their confident play, on an unfamiliar stage, is something of which they can be proud. Though Argentina hadn’t played well in the first half, Messi’s genius led them to victory. Will this finally be his World Cup?

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Goals, linked to in GIF form, below.

Bosnia’s OG

Messi’s goal, 2-0.

BIH’s consolation.

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