JOHANNESBURG: Diego Maradona`s Argentina dispelled doubts about their World Cup-winning potential as they put a poor qualifying campaign behind them to beat Nigeria 1-0 with a brilliant performance from Lionel Messi on Saturday.
Argentina scored early in the Group B game through defender Gabriel Heinze but a string of saves from Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama made for a nerve wracking ending as they failed to ram home their superiority.
Messi, showing he can carry Argentina in a way he never managed in the South American qualifiers, might have scored four goals but Enyeama saved three first-half efforts and saw one late in the match skim the outside of a post.
"Today we managed a valued victory but we can no longer let the rival goal off the way we did today," Maradona told the post news conference.
Nigeria`s Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, in charge of his country when their 1-1 draw sealed Argentina`s fate in 2002, said: "I`m very disappointed about the result.
"Unfortunately there was a mistake from our side ... we stood sleeping on one of the corners (and) that`s what happens at this level."
The performance justified Maradona`s decision to field a three-man attack, with Messi at the centre of most attacks, cutting in from behind strikers Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez although Jonas Gutierrez looked uncomfortable defending the right flank.
It was the same result as Argentina`s previous World Cup meeting with Nigeria in Japan in 2002, but Messi`s form should guarantee there is no repeat of their shock group stage elimination with South Korea and Greece to come.
The goal followed a glaring miss by Higuain from Messi`s left cross and Enyeama`s first save from the little ace, a chip the keeper did well to tip over for a corner.
Juan Sebastian Veron, a veteran of the 2002 debacle, took the kick from the right to the middle of the box where Heinze dived forward to power a header into the top corner for his third international goal.
Messi followed that with two trademark efforts, a cut inside from the right wing to send left-footed shots towards the bottom and later top far corner.
As the match wore on but the lead remained the slimmest possible, Maradona paced the touchline more and more nervously and made substitutions to ensure Argentina clung to it.
Nigeria, having survived thanks to man of the match Enyeama, were left to rue their poor finishing.
Forward Chinedu Obasi went close twice in the first half, his first chance coming with less than two minutes on the clock as right wing-back Jonas Gutierrez struggled in defence.
Left back Taye Taiwo hit a low shot from outside the box that went wide of the far post in the second half.
Argentina face South Korea, who beat Greece 2-0 earlier in Port Elizabeth, in their next match at Soccer City on Thursday with the two teams on three points at the top of the group.
BDST: 1131hrs, June 13, 2010