World Cup: Lionel Messi stars as Argentina tops group

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Story highlights

Lionel Messi scores twice for Argentina

Nigeria qualifies despite 3-2 defeat

Iran beaten 3-1 by Bosnia-Herzegovina

Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic on target for Bosnia

CNN  — 

Anything you can do, I can do better.

That was the message from Lionel Messi to Brazil’s boy wonder Neymar.

Both players, teammates at Barcelona, have lit up this World Cup with four goals in their opening three games.

But unlike Neymar, who at the age of just 22 has scored 35 goals in 52 international appearances, Messi has had to contend with critics who say he never delivers when playing in an Argentina shirt.

Now, having scored more times in this tournament than his previous two World Cups combined, those opinions appear to have disappeared ahead of the last-16 tie against Switzerland.

Two goals against Nigeria in Wednesday’s 3-2 victory secured top spot in Group F against a Super Eagles side which qualified for the last 16 in second place courtesy of Iran’s 3-1 defeat by Bosnia.

“Messi is one heck of a player,” Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi told reporters.

“You can’t take that away from him. He’s blessed. I think there are other players in the Argentina squad who are very strong, but Messi is from Jupiter.

“We gave too much respect to the Argentinians and did not play our game in the first half. We played a bit more aggressive in the second half. Congratulations to the Argentina team, I wish them all the best in the tournament.”

Messi left Argentina for Spain at the age of 13 – a move which led many in his homeland to question whether he had taken on a Catalan identity by the time he grew into one of the world’s greats.

Surely that myth will be extinguished should Messi lead his country to its first World Cup triumph since 1986 – and the signs are increasingly encouraging.

He has now scored 42 goals in 88 international appearances while playing with an energy which suggests he may have been saving his best for last following a relatively poor season at Barcelona, which was interrupted by injury.

His last-gasp goal which secured a 1-0 win over a valiant Iran was a moment of magic which will long be remembered.

That goal, which came just moments after Diego Maradona – arguably Argentina’s greatest ever player – had left the stadium, appeared to signal his arrival as the nation’s new hero.

Messi, who turned 27 on Tuesday, said his perfect birthday gift would be to win the World Cup – and given his recent performances, it would take a brave person to bet against it.

Unlike on Saturday against Iran, Messi required just three minutes to unpick the Nigerian defense in Porto Alegre.

A sumptuous through ball by Javier Mascherano released Angel Di Maria and, when his shot was pushed onto the post by the Nigeria goalkeeper, Messi followed up to lash the ball high into the net.

Nigeria, which hadn’t conceded a goal in its previous two games, could scarcely have reacted better.

Just over a minute later, a quick break allowed Ahmed Musa to find space on the left before he cut inside a curled home a delightful effort past the outstretched arm of Sergio Romero.

A draw would have been enough to take Nigeria through to the next stage for the first time since 1998 but the Africans struggled to contain a rampant looking Argentina.

Di Maria, a star of Real Madrid’s European Champions League triumph, unleashed a fierce 30-yard drive which Vincent Enyeama, the Nigeria goalkeeper, did well to turn behind.

Enyeama, who has enjoyed an impressive season with French club Lille, then denied Messi from 25 yards as the forward arrowed a free kick towards goal.

But with the first half drawing to a close, he was beaten again as Messi curled home an exquisite effort from 20 yards with his wand-like left-foot.

Nigeria could have been forgiven for beginning to fear the worst at the interval given Messi’s moments of magic.

But Stephen Keshi’s men appeared reinvigorated after the break and Musa broke through the Argentina defense to level within two minutes of the restart.

Nigeria, paired with Argentina for the fourth time in the World Cup, suffered narrow defeats in each of its previous three fixtures against the South Americans.

But any thoughts that this would finally be its day were soon extinguished when Marcos Rojo bundled in Messi’s corner just three minutes later.

The mercurial Messi, having already tormented Nigeria for just over an hour, was then substituted by coach Alejandro Sabella – either to give him a rest or out of sympathy for his opponents.

As Messi walked off to a standing ovation and an almighty roar from the thousands wearing blue and white packed inside the stadium, the game appeared to meander somewhat.

There was still time for Musa to threaten a hat-trick while Messi’s replacement, Ricky Alvarez, should have done better with a headed chance late on.

But with the news of Iran’s demise filtering through from Salvador, Nigeria appeared aware of its qualification and a showdown with France in Brasilia on Monday.

Iran, which fought so valiantly during the 1-0 defeat by Argentina last Saturday, required a victory to progress for the first time in its history, combined with a Nigerian defeat.

But it was frustrated in its attempt by a Bosnia team, which despite already being unable to qualify for the knockout phase, appeared determined to go out of its first World Cup in style.

Bosnia’s 1-0 defeat by Nigeria, which riled coach Safet Susic after his team wrongly had a goal disallowed, left several players inconsolable at the final whistle.

But there was little sign of a hangover and Edin Dzeko, the man whose effort was ruled out, finally gained the goal he so badly craved when he drove home from 20 yards.

Roma’s Miralem Pjanic added a second after the break before Reza Ghoochannejad pulled one back with 11 minutes remaining.

But with Iran pushing forward for an equalizer, Avdija Vrsajevic rounded off a rapid move by firing in off the post to secure his country’s historic first World Cup victory

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