Argentina remain Olympic football champions after a goal engineered by superstar Lionel Messi inspired them to a 1-0 win over former champions Nigeria in the gold medal match at the Beijing Games on Saturday.
Messi disentangled himself from Nigeria’s tight marking to put teammate Angel Di Maria clear on goal early in the second half of a final played in sapping 35-degree midday heat before a near capacity crowd of 89,102 at the National Stadium.
Benfica’s Di Maria chipped over the advancing goalkeeper Ambruse Vanzekin to break the deadlock and score what proved the winning goal in the 58th minute.
“It was a dream game. All I could think of was thank God the ball went over the line and now thanks to that I have a gold medal,” Di Maria said.
Argentina successfully defended the Olympic crown from their 1-0 win over Paraguay in Athens four years ago. They are now unbeaten in 12 matches stretching over two Games, an Olympic football record.
Nigeria went in with the psychological edge of beating Argentina 3-2 in the corresponding final 12 years ago in Atlanta to become the first African Olympic champions.
But although Nigeria kept Messi in check for the most part, he ultimately sunk them with his exhilarating skills in a decider twice halted for water breaks for the heat-stressed players.
“We didn’t play our best football today but this victory is a good one for us,” Messi said. “The fact that we have been to the athletes village and met famous sportsmen, it’s all an experience that we will not forget quickly.”
Messi, who almost didn’t play in Beijing with Barcelona wanting him back in Spain in time for the Champions League third qualifying round matches, came close to scoring 13 minutes from the end, but was thwarted by a brave covering tackle from Nice central defender Onyekachi Apam.
Messi once again proved Nigeria’s nemesis after undoing them in the final of the 2005 FIFA under-20 World Cup in Utrecht when he earned and converted two penalties in a 2-1 win.
“Messi terrorises not only our team, but all teams in Europe. He didn’t score but he created a lot of their chances. That is why we have the silver and they have the gold,” Nigerian coach Samson Siasia said.
“We’re very disappointed, but it means we came second in the Olympic Games. We had a lot of good scoring chances, but you have to score goals to win the gold medal.”
The defending champions began well with Di Maria put clear by skipper Juan Riquelme in the ninth minute and was brought down on the edge of the box.
Hertha Berlin right winger Solomon Okoronkwo, the only over-aged player in the Nigerian squad, produced some sweet touches to combine well with striker Victor Obinna.
Sergio Aguero, whose two goals destroyed Brazil in Tuesday’s 3-0 semi-final win, was put through by Di Maria but Apam saw off the threat in the 16th minute.
Messi appealed for a penalty when he surged into the area but it was turned down and at the other end left-winger Peter Odemwingie’s header was just over the bar.
The baking heat forced Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai to stop play for a water break on the half-hour and on the resumption Odemwingie skipped around Nicolas Pareja and skipper Promise Isaac just missed connecting with the cross.
The ball came back and Isaac’s header was saved by Sergio Romero in Nigeria’s best chance of the half.
Argentina didn’t get their first corner until the 39th minute and just before halftime Apam again defused another Messi threat and Di Maria let fly with a fierce long-range drive which just whistled past the right post.
Messi almost scored minutes after the interval flicking the ball around a defender and unleashing a stinging volley that was taken by Vanzekin.
Apam went into the referee’s book for a heavy tackle on Di Maria as Argentina began to take more control of the game.
Messi had a chance moments later skipping clear after winning the ball in a tackle but Apam saved the situation with a great covering tackle on the edge of the box.
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