DHAKA, Bangladesh, September 6 – A magical Lionel Messi relished his new role as the Argentina captain as he set up two fine goals to help beat Nigeria 3-1 in a friendly encounter in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Tuesday.
The Barcelona superstar, who has often failed to find top form for his country, set the pitch alight with his magnificent left foot, weaving through Nigeria’s defence at will to deafening cheers at a three-quarter-full stadium.
Exorbitant ticket prices — a minimum 100 dollars apiece — meant the 24,000 seats available did not fill up, while thousands of people stayed outside the ground just to have a glimpse at Messi and Co.
It was new Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella’s second victory in as many matches. His team beat Venezuela 1-0 in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata on Friday in front of 120,000 as part of an Asian tour to drum up new support.
Sabella, who replaced Sergio Batista after Argentina’s disappointing performance at the Copa America on home soil in July, said Messi was the difference on the night.
“He did not score but he assisted all three goals. He was the best player in the match. It does not matter whether he scores of not,” he said.
The trickster set up the first goal with a deft chip that sent Gonzalo Higuain clear in the 25th minute.
Angel di Maria tapped home the second two minutes later after Messi again ran through the gaping Nigerian defence before his shot was parried by the goalkeeper, the ball falling invitingly for di Maria.
Nigeria were better in the second-half, reducing the margin through an Obasi Chinedu goal on 46 minutes, but the Africans lost their way after conceding an own-goal following a Higuain attempt on a move generated by Messi once more.
Messi came close to scoring twice himself in the first-half, sending the crowd to their feet as he dribbled past four Nigerian defenders before his left-footed shot to the far post was saved by the overstretched hands of Dele Aiyenugba.
He again came close to scoring but his shot on the stroke of half-time was saved by the busy Nigerian keeper.
Sabella admitted that, although new to the job, the heat was already on him to deliver.
“I am very happy with the result,” he said. “The Argentina fans are very demanding. I feel the pressure of the job so winning the first two games was therefore important for me.”
A second-string Argentina lost away to Nigeria in June, but Sabella said revenge was not the motivation in Dhaka. “It was a very good victory. But I don’t believe in revenge,” he said.
Nigerian coach Samson Siasia admitted his men simply could not live with Messi.
“The game was difficult but Messi made the difference,” said Siasia. “We tried to contain him but he was the best player of the game.”
Argentina have a loyal following in South Asia thanks to Diego Maradona’s heroics in the 1986 World Cup.
But many Bangladeshi fans reacted with fury against the organisers, who paid the two sides four million dollars to host the match — the country’s biggest ever soccer tie.