Group F: Messi bursts Bosnia's bubble
It was like a home away from home. Argentina’s fans packed out the 75,000 capacity of the Maracana, making themselves comfortable in the shrine of their fiercest rivals, Brazil. Here, in the opening tie of Group F with Bosnia and Herzegovina, their country was supposed to announce itself again as contenders for the World Cup.
The game finished 2-1 to the South American giants - an underwhelming result, accompanied by a largely subdued performance. For long spells, Bosnia, relative football minnows, had proved a match for Goliath on the night. But the public’s optimism remained. They had finally seen Lionel Messi emerge central to a victory on the world stage.
La Pulga gave the crowd the opening they had been waiting for when his free-kick was fortuitously diverted into Asmir Begovic’s net by Sead Kolasinic. But his next intervention was no fluke. His fans were made to wait for it though, with the Bosnian midfield enthusiastically closing him down at every opportunity. They could do nothing however when Messi performed a quick give-and-go with Gonzalo Higuain, gliding past a couple of desperate lunges before rifling in an unstoppable finish to break his 623 minute World Cup drought - stretching back to 2006 - in style.
A procession of coaches had tried and failed to coax the four-time Ballon d’Or out of his shell on the international stage. But Alejandro Sabella had derived the simplest of formulas for Argentina when he was appointed: make the Barcelona forward the focal point in attack. Stick him with a worthy supporting cast. Keep giving him the ball, till he produces one of his moments of magic.
The sighs arising from the Argentina camp might otherwise have proven deeper without their talisman. Their football had perhaps been too academic at the start, and they looked hesitant and unsure of themselves in the 5-3-2 they lined up in. Higuain and Fernando Gago, who had been instrumental during qualification, were only fit enough to appear from the bench.
Sabella’s introduction of the pair at half time highlighted that though they may not be their country’s best players, they are certainly two of the most important. Both offered the link from midfield to attack superbly in the endlessly more fluent and familiar 4-3-3. More importantly, they showed again that they are of the rare breed to make those around them play better - principally, Messi. The ensuing brilliance - in flashes - was finally able to put the result under lock and key.
For Bosnia, Vedad Ibisevic netting his country’s first ever World Cup goal will count as scant consolation. The tournament debutants ensured this would be no cakewalk for their illustrious opponents. Boos rang out as the Zmajevi (Dragons) roughed up their counterparts at the start. But soon the silky underdogs would begin to attract their own throng of eyes.
There was indeed magic at the Maracana, but it was delivered for the majority by the landlocked nation. Many of the Bosnian players had grown up as refugees, driven by war to seek a new life abroad. Yet here they were, dining at football’s top table. They, and their partisan band of travelling fans who could scrape together enough earnings to make the 7,000 mile journey, were evidently enjoying themselves.
Aided by the tameness of their principal group rivals’ play in periods, Bosnia were not just content to stop or counter play. They began dictating it. Roma playmaker Miralem Pjanic and former Wolfsburg pass master Zvjezdan Misimovic led the way forward for an engine room with enough quality to hold its own against star studded opponents. Together they supplied the ammunition for the forward line that put more shots downrange than Argentina, with a Senad Lulic header particularly troubling Sergio Romero.
Despite their setback, Safet Susic’s men earned great credit for their display. With the team now fully immersed in its historic moment, the onus will be on Bosnia to keep the dream alive and progress to the latter stages in another milestone for their country.
If Bosnia had taken the plaudits for their display, then Iran certainly didn’t. Carlos Queiroz, the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss, demanded respect for his Asian side in the run up to their clash with Nigeria. But surely that won’t be forthcoming now after the 0-0 in Curitiba produced this tournament’s first draw. His outfit barely ventured out of their half, other than for Reza Ghoochannejhad’s golden opportunity to send Iran into the lead. It is a result that leaves Team Melli facing an uphill task as they aim to progress from the World Cup group stages for the first time.
Africa’s great hope, Nigeria never quite covered themselves in glory either. Their possession counted for little as precision deserted them in their attacking moves. Stephen Keshi axed a number of significant players from his final squad for the tournament, choosing to leave Sunday Mba, Taye Taiwo, Joel Obi and Victor Obinna off the plane to Brazil. Despite leading the Super Eagles to the 2013 African Cup of Nations, Keshi’s credentials could be severely undermined if they fail to make it to the quarter finals this World Cup.
Jeremy Lim is a freelance football writer with a particular interest in the Spanish, Italian and South American game. He writes for several online outlets, and can occasionally be heard on Red Card Sports Radio.