The man of the past 24 hours within the Argentine national team was Ángel Di Maria. He was being inquired about by Real Madrid and then Barcelona but he quickly quashed any speculation as he mentioned that he would remain with Benfica.
That would not lead him to to let down as the biggest game of his life was just around the corner. He was about to face a team that had quite an important ¨rivalry¨ of sorts against the Albiceleste. Starting from the 1994 World Cup to the gold medal match in Atlanta 1996 to the the final of the U-20 in 2005, Nigeria was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
There were other factors that played a huge role in the game, such as the incessant heat of the Beijing afternoon that were vital, but for the most part the game fit the billing.
Argentina was deserving of the gold medal as they remained true to their game throughout the tournament. They also showed that they were the deepest side. Everyone knew coming into the Olympics what Riquelme, Messi, and Agüero could do. Yet there were other protagonists that made their job much easier.
The one that stood out the most was Di Maria. He was part of the reason why Nigerian coach Samson Siasia changed his strategy and depended more on the counterattack to generate problems in the backfield. Nigeria was a force throughout the tournament, and then all of a suddent Siasia changed the script. Argentina implemented the rhythm and established the play. Lio Messi caused mayhem in the left wing of the Nigerian defense, but there was a the Barcelona youngster was not able to run towards goal as he was taken outside. His ability to open up the left, helped Pablo Zabaleta coming in behind them. Sergio Agüero was the complimentary factor coming from the right, but was not quite the bomb that he was against Brazil down the middle. There was a controversial call when Agüero was pushed in the box and Hungarian referee Gabor Eros turned the other way.
The central defenders for Nigeria held up the middle and refused a clear shot to the Argentines. The first shot of the first half was courtesy of a Messi left-footed shot that was saved by an inspired Ambruse Vanzekin. After that point, Nigeria evened out the level of play and were able to make Sergio Romero uncomfortable. Blame that mostly on Peter Odemwingie who took advantage of Zabaleta moving up into the attack. Not that Zabaleta was doing a poor job of defending him poorly, just that the Lokomotiv forward’s pace was a difference maker in a few instances. He was responsible for the header in the first 15 mintes of the match that barely went over the Argentine goal. Odemwingie would then make another run towards the middle and cross the ball that would find its away across the six-yard box. On the other side, another cross would come in and it would find an unexpectant Promise Isaac. The ball bounced off of Issac and caught Romero moving forward. He was able to rectify his footing and dive backward to catch the lobbing ¨header¨.
The one aspect of the Argentine offense that really lacked was that of Boca Juniors star Juan Román Riquelme. His virtual absence made it seem like Argentina played with ten men. This is when Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago stepped up their game exponentially. These two blew up various Nigerian attacks and generated some important counterattacks that caused problems for their rivals. This game showcased the midfielders´ combination of style and strength that made them so valuable to this team.
The first half would end on a spectacular shot by Argentine leftback Luciano Monzón. The left-footed shot went for the near post but Ambruse Vanzekin was teh savior once more with a spectacular dive. Vanzekin touched the ball and put enough into it that the ball nicked the post for an eventual Argentine corner.
The second half saw the two sides come out to a furious pace that showed the two sides´ contrasting styles. Argentina´s controlled and brilliant magic that put everyone at the Bird’s Nest on the edge of their seat. Nigeria was a frenetic beat that was a bundle of power that was starting to get confident, but that would prove dangerous.
In the 57th minute, Argentina would blow up a Nigerian attack and give the Africans a taste of their own medicine.
Lio Messi would collect a ball and pass it with pinpoint precision to Ángel Di Maria, who was in a full sprint. Chizubor Okonkuwo was in a bind as he saw himself in the wrong end of a two-on-one as Agüero was on the other side of the Di Maria. This would leave Vanzekin in a position to make the most dreaded decision for a goalkeeper to make. Behind door one, he could stay in the box and wait for Di Maria and improve his shooting angle. Behind door two, he would have to go out into a frantic rush and wih for the best. His defender had to stay in his lane, so door one was opened.
Di Maria countered with a brilliant finish. He saw Vanzekin coming out and finished like a genius. Somewhere a Real Madrid exec salivated a little more to have the former Rosario Central phenom. To see him chip the bal ball over an impotent Nigerian goalkeeper had a ripple effect everywere from Beijing all the to Buenos Aires. Alfio Basile also felt justified after he called the Benfica youngster for upcoming international duty earlier in the day much to the criticism the domestic media.
In the end Nigeria came in to the game with a puncher´s chance and proved it with their inability to finish passes, but they still threatened. Their gameplan changed, but after that their nerves set in and were not able to capitalize. Despite all of that going against them, Nigeria would unsettle the Argentine defense late in the second half when Odemwingie once again passed Zabaleta and his cross would touch sub Victor Anichebe´s foot, but would be denied by Romero.
Nigeria on offense was unchracteristc, many times they appealed to the fantasy pass or touch their way to goal when power and pace were their recipe to causing problems in the net. In certain instances it played into Argentina’s hands. Their oportunities were neutralized by their lack of ideas as well as their lack of intelligence in a tight game.
For Argentina it became the second consecutive gold medal. Javier Mascherano became the first Olympic soccer player to win back-to-back gold medals. Messi and company earned their first, but the day belonged to Ángel Di Maria. His goal made him the team’s leading scorer and the player of the tournament. For the youngster, that is quite a bit to be said as his magic carpet ride continues.