PORTO ALEGRE, June 25: Nigeria face Lionel Messi’s already qualified Argentina in Porto Alegre on Wednesday with a first appearance in the last 16 since 1998 tantalisingly within the African champions’ grasp.
Tens of thousands of Messi fans are expected to make the trip up from Argentina to this southern port city for the closing Group F clash where a draw would secure the Nigerians the all important runners-up spot after Peter Odemwingie’s goal against Bosnia-Hercegovina in Cuiaba on Saturday ended the west Africans’ nine-match World Cup winless run.
Defeat to Argentina, who sit top with wins over Iran and Bosnia, could still see Stephen Keshi’s men prolong their stay in Brazil, if Iran fail to beat Bosnia up in Salvador.
And FIFA might even have to get out their straws for the drawing of lots should Iran win 1-0 and Nigeria lose by the same score, leaving the sides inseparable on points, goal difference, number of goals and head-to-head.
Argentina approach the game with their noses put out of joint by media criticism of their performances so far, with only Messi’s goals against Bosnia and Iran saving their blushes.
“Obviously it hurts when you hear people saying that they don’t like you, when people say different things to us,” Real Madrid forward Angel Di Maria said at the weekend.
Messi, who turns 27 on Tuesday, and his teammates have a significant incentive to notch up their third win here and top the table as that would mean likely avoiding Didier Deschamps’s impressive France for a second round date instead with Group E’s runners-up, likely to Ecuador or Switzerland, although Honduras could still snatch that honour.
The two-time former champions may have failed to set the 2014 World Cup stage alight in their opening forays but Messi predicts the Argentine pot is slowly coming to the boil.
“We are not showing what we can do, but with a run of games I think we will get there,” said Barcelona’s four time World Player of the Year.
Messi’s priceless influence was noted yet again by coach Alejandro Sabella after his late coup de grace against Iran.
“All the players contributed to the victory but of course we have a genius who is called Messi. Fortunately he is Argentine — everyone would like to have Messi but it is us who have him.
“Iran made life hard for us but with Messi, everything is possible.”
As Nigeria are surely about to discover.
Wednesday’s rivals have met on three previous occasions at the World Cup, with the Argentines prevailing each time, but Odemwingie says his team can cause Messi and company problems in the Beira-Rio stadium.
Odemwingie recounted a chat with a Brazilian fan on the street who told him that Nigeria would face Brazil in the final.
“I told this guy ‘sure, why not? We’ve got brilliant players, we haven’t reached our full potential yet’.”
The Stoke City player added: “We have a resilient defence, a creative midfield, and with our attack line we could bring problems to any defence in the world,”
Veteran centre-back Joseph Yobo, who will earn his 100th cap if selected again, hailed Messi as “a legend” before quickly adding “but he’s only human” — something Albiceleste supporters might argue with.
After Nigeria’s much-maligned goalless draw with Iran the media knives were out back in Lagos but Keshi said he’d never doubted his team.
“I never thought that we wouldn’t make the Round of 16,” he stated.
On facing the South Americans he added: “We need to work hard for the game against Argentina. I have the players.”