THE DAY REPLAYED – The smallest incidents sometimes produce the broadest smiles in football. Argentina’s Ezequiel Lavezzi was receiving instructions from Alejandro Sabella on the touchline when, without being prompted by the coach, he decided to help the boss freshen up by spraying his head with water from a drinks bottle. It was not the only refreshing moment in the penultimate round of group stage matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ as a hot, tense and turbulent Wednesday ran its exciting course.
La Albiceleste marched into the Round of 16 on the back of an unblemished group stage record, with Nigeria also progressing as Group F runners-up despite losing to Sabella’s side. Over in Group E, France and Switzerland took the total of European nations through to the first knockout round up to four (and they will definitely be joined by Belgium who cannot finish lower than second in Group H with a game to play).
The top three memorable moments on the day were impressive double strikes by an established star and a young hopeful, and a sensational hat-trick by a player previously burdened by the weight of pre-tournament expectation.
Elsewhere, World Cup newcomers Bosnia and Herzegovina bowed out of the tournament with their heads held high and a win to their name. The eastern Europeans posted a maiden victory at the finals over Iran and made no secret of their pride afterwards. “We’ll never forget this for the rest of our lives,” captain Emir Spahic told FIFA.com.
Nigeria 2-3 Argentina (Budweiser Man of the Match: Lionel Messi, ARG)
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-1 Iran (Budweiser Man of the Match: Edin Dzeko, BIH)
Honduras 0-3 Switzerland (Budweiser Man of the Match: Xherdan Shaqiri, SUI)
Ecuador 0-0 France (Budweiser Man of the Match: Alexander Dominguez, ECU)
Messi’s late birthday present
Lionel Messi is already a living legend, but his star is shining increasingly brightly as time goes on. In the meeting with Nigeria the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year not only scored Argentina’s first direct free-kick goal since a Daniel Passarella belter at Spain 1982, but also became only the third player from his country after Gabriel Batistuta and Oreste Corbatta to find the net in three consecutive World Cup matches. The Barcelona striker, who turned 27 on Tuesday, is probably far more pleased about erasing the memory of failing to score at all in South Africa four years ago. He already has four goals in Brazil and has provided the perfect riposte to those who doubted his credentials on the biggest stage of all.
Double strike points to bright future
As it turned out, Messi was obliged to share the limelight in Porto Alegre with a young hopeful whose name bears a passing resemblance to his own. Young Nigeria striker Ahmed Musa emulated his famous near-namesake with a crisply-taken brace of his own. Close followers of the global game will have been reminded of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2011 in Colombia where Musa earned plaudits for his three goals. He failed to hit the target when his team were knocked out by France in the quarter-finals at the time, but what goes around comes around and he will be more motivated than ever to put one past Les Bleuswhen he renews rivalries with the French in the last sixteen.
A hat-trick hero comes of age
Xherdan Shaqiri is already well known as a midfield dynamo with an impressive turn of skill and speed. The dynamic Swiss starlet recently complained about harsh treatment from the media and chose the perfect time to prove he can deliver on the big occasion with an outstanding triple strike to earn his side a 3-0 victory over Honduras in Manaus. ‘Shaq’ becomes the first Switzerland player since Adrian Knup two decades ago to score more than a single goal in a World Cup match. As a footnote for the record books, his was also the 50th hat-trick in finals history. Shaqiri’s explosion of form when it matters is a hallmark of a future great and will give Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men the boost they need to head into the knockout stages without fear or an inferiority complex.
1 – For the first time since Korea/Japan 2002, all 32 nations in the World Cup starting field have conceded at least one goal in the group stages. Nigeria were the last team with no goals against but that proud record was demolished just three minutes into the day’s action as Argentina’s Messi got his side off to a flying start. Nigeria boss Stephen Keshi colourfully expressed his admiration afterwards: “Messi is from Jupiter!”