Is Argentina for real?: It’s a question that was posed to my colleague James Sharman during Wednesday’s edition of Tim & Sid on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. On the surface, the South Americans appear to have breezed through the group stage with three wins. It was anything but easy, though. The Argentines were made to work in all three of their games, tested by strong opponents in Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria. Tellingly, Argentina only kept one clean sheet (against the ultra-defensive Iranians), and four of their six goals came off the boot of Lionel Messi, with one own-goal. So much for balanced scoring. And while Angel di Maria has been lively, Sergio Aguero offered next to nothing in the group stage. Messi has had to carry this team, to a certain extent, and it was his last-gasp goal that saved Argentina the major embarrassment of drawing Iran. So, a major crisis for Argentina, then?
Not quite. Nine points from three games is still impressive—even more so when they are accumulated without hitting top speed, which Argentina has yet to reach in Brazil. It’s clichéd and obvious to say, but for the benefit of the doomsayers out there, it does bear repeating: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Argentina is coming good at the right time, each performance better than the previous one. Looking ahead, things line up quite nicely for Argentina. They’ll have an extra day off before travelling to Sao Paulo (a decent climate) where a winnable game against Switzerland awaits. After that comes another potentially winnable match against Belgium in the quarterfinals, before possibly facing the Netherlands in the semifinals. Brazil, Colombia, France and Germany (assuming it qualifies) are on the other side of the bracket, so Argentina’s path to the final looks pretty smooth. Messi is in fine form, and he’s had to be at this tournament to elevate his team, but that’s what he does. One recalls how Diego Maradona guided Argentina to glory in 1986. It’s unfair and more than a little revisionist to suggest Maradona did it all by himself in Mexico. But his outstanding play did take his team to another level that year, and Messi is doing the exact same thing in Brazil—and this Argentina side is way more talented than the 1986 version. To answer the question: Yes, Argentina is for real.
The Shaqiri Show: That’s more like it! Xherdan Shaqiri had the breakout effort that learned soccer pundits and fans knew he was capable of, as he bagged a hat trick to lead the Swiss to a 3-0 win over Honduras. His timing was impeccable. With Switzerland coming off a thrashing at the hands of France and facing elimination squarely in the face, Shaqiri needed to have the performance of his lifetime, and that’s exactly what he did. His first goal was one of the best of the tournament thus far, curling a shot into the far corner after dribbling through a crowd of Honduran defenders. His second showed his knack for being in the right place at the right time, capitalizing on a defensive miscue. On the third, he showed his speed, charging up-field to get into position before hitting a one-timer past goalkeeper Noel Valladares. Still only 22, Shaqiri arrived in Brazil with a point to prove even though he is his nation’s most skilled player. The talented winger possesses great technical ability, but he’s been a role player at Bayern Munich, unable to crack Pep Guardiola’s starting 11 on a regular basis this past campaign. He was largely disappointing through the first two games of the group stage, so he really had to exert his influence in a major way against the Hondurans. He did, and much more, coming up with one of the best individual performances of this tournament thus far. Now, let’s see if this was a one-off, or if he can build on it against Argentina in the next round.
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Game within the game
A lot of the focus on Switzerland’s big win will be on Xherdan Shaqiri, and that’s understandable. But don’t overlook the Swiss’ outstanding defence, especially in breaking up plays in their end of the field (see map below). Of the 17 interceptions Switzerland made, 15 came in the defensive zone. Honduras only managed four shots on target (one of which was from distance) and had another blocked inside the area.
In first-half injury time, Lionel Messi lined up a free kick from 30 yards out and curled a beauty over the wall and past a helpless Vincent Enyeama in the Nigerian net. Breathtaking!
Save of the day
Angel di Maria unleashed a venomous shot from 40 yards out that took a bounce inside the box. Enyeama, though, read it well and made a diving stop to push the ball around the post.
Match of the day
Nigeria versus Argentina produced five goals—including some real beauties—and featured long stretches with end-to-end action. Just when you thought Argentina had the advantage, the Nigerians hit back. Amazing.
Best moment of the day
The instant the ball nestled into the back of the net off of Lionel Messi’s majestic free kick. Poetry.
He said it
“Messi is from Jupiter, he is different.” — Stephen Keshi, Nigeria coach
1) Xherdan Shaqiri: The Swiss maestro recorded the second hat trick of this tournament in a marvellous performance against Honduras. 2) Ahmed Musa: The CSKA Moscow forward netted a brace for Nigeria with two fantastic finishes to help send the Super Eagles through to the second round. 3) Lionel Messi: Two more goals from Argentina’s wizard to take his tally to four and him top of the goal-scoring charts in Brazil (tied with Neymar).
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