POLOKWANE: Lionel Messi, who turns 23 on Thursday, captained his country for the first time on Tuesday and gave another virtuoso performance as Argentina beat Greece 2-0 to reach the second round of the World Cup.
While his team mates may give him presents on Thursday, Messi presented his coach Diego Maradona with a gift-wrapped one of his own -- the prize of first place in Group B after three successive wins over Nigeria, South Korea and Greece.
Argentina now face Mexico in the second round, a repeat of their meeting in 2006 when Argentina won 2-1.
"I am going to use the best players I have for that match because it is qualify or die, that`s the truth," Maradona told reporters after the game. "That`s why I rested Mascherano and Gabriel Heinze, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain tonight."
Greece coach Otto Rehhagel saw his team outplayed by a rejigged Argentina side after Maradona rested key players and had Jonas Gutierrez suspended. But even with the changes Argentina were in control and Messi was named the Man of the Match.
"What can you do against the best team here?" said Rehhagel. "They deserved to win."
The only thing lacking for Messi, the little attacking schemer who became his country`s youngest World Cup captain in place of rested skipper Javier Mascherano, was a goal.
He was denied by the width of a post after 86 minutes when he sent a scorching drive clattering against Greek goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas`s right-hand upright.
Three minutes later he forced Tzorvas to make the last of a series of brilliant saves. Sadly for Tzorvas, the ball bounced into the path of substitute Martin Palermo, who lashed it home to crush any lingering hopes Greece may have had of surviving.
"I was only on for 10 minutes, but there were 10 great minutes," Palermo told reporters afterwards.
"We showed we have some real strength in the squad tonight and we are just getting stronger. We are moving forward, we are improving and it was a great win for us tonight."
Greece had resisted Argentina`s advances until the 77th minute when Martin Demichelis smashed the ball in from a metre out following a corner.
The Greeks could have no complaints about their fate after playing too defensively for most of the match when attack would have been their best policy.
Messi kept the Greek defenders on their toes almost from the kickoff and was instrumental in setting up chances for Diego Milito and Maxi Rodriguez as Argentina totally dominated the first half.
He also performed one exquisite piece of skill when he trapped a high ball on his foot and turned away from defender Vassilis Torosidis in one movement.
Maradona, almost as involved in the action as the players, danced a jig of delight on the touchline and there was plenty more from both Messi and his side to delight him on a cold night at the Peter Mokaba Stadium.
Maradona, who seems to hug and kiss everyone he comes across at this World Cup, also gave Tzorvas an embrace after the final whistle in recognition of his outstanding performance that kept Greece in the game for as long as they were.
He saved twice from Messi, twice from Sergio Aguero and once from Juan Sebastian Veron whose thunderbolt seemed goalbound until Tzorvas palmed it over the bar. He also stopped an effort from point-blank range by midfielder Mario Bolatti at a corner with 21 minutes to go.
Messi was man-marked by Socratis Papastathopoulos at first and although he was rarely able to show off his skills initially, he eventually became the key figure in the match as he so often does. The Greeks simply found him unplayable.
Rehhagel`s side did have a few chances but wasted most of them with striker Giorgos Samaras the most profligate, firing high wide and everywhere else except the back of the net.
BDST: 1052hrs, June 23, 2010