Lionel Messi scored a trademark individual goal as Argentina opened their World Cup campaign with a narrow 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina at Rio de Janeiro’s renovated Maracana on Sunday.
The Barcelona superstar created the third-minute own goal by Sead Kolasinac with which Argentina went ahead, but it took a mid-match tactical shift for him to really start influencing proceedings.
Gonzalo Higuain’s half-time introduction afforded Messi more space and in the 65th minute the four-time Ballon d’Or-winner scored a goal befitting the iconic 78,800-seater stadium, which will host the July 13 final.
After collecting the ball just inside Bosnia’s half, Messi burst forward and exchanged passes with Higuain before darting past a pair of defenders and slamming home a shot via the base of the left-hand post from 20 yards.
It was only the second World Cup goal of the 26-year-old’s career and substitute Vedad Ibisevic’s late reply for Bosnia meant that it proved decisive.
“The second goal secured the three points and was special for me for the game I was having,” said Messi, who failed to score at the 2010 World Cup.
With tournament debutants Bosnia likely to be Argentina’s strongest rivals for group supremacy, Alejandro Sabella’s side are firmly on course to reach the last 16 ahead of further games against Iran and Nigeria.
“Perhaps we made an error or two, and I’m sure I got one or two things wrong, but we should cherish these three points because the Bosnians were no pushovers,” said Sabella.
“The changes gave Messi more support. He doesn’t need much, because he’s the best in the world. But there is always a context that can enhance him a little bit more,” he said.
Victory was raucously celebrated by the swathes of blue and white-clad fans who had swept into Rio and turned the Maracana – overhauled for the World Cup – into an outpost of Buenos Aires, but it was far from straightforward.
WATCH: Lionel Messi announces his arrival at World Cup 2014
With Higuain still troubled by an ankle injury, Sabella elected to deploy a 5-3-2 formation that paired Messi with Sergio Aguero in attack.
It was a departure from the 4-3-3 system used in qualifying, when Argentina topped the South American standings, but it did not stop Messi from making an early impression.
A free-kick wide on the left gave the Argentina captain a chance to bend a cross into the box and although Marcos Rojo made only glancing contact, the ball cannoned into the net off the unfortunate Kolasinac.
Clocked at two minutes and eight seconds, it was the quickest own goal in World Cup history.
Having overcome the shock of conceding such an early goal, Bosnia found that they were able to hold Argentina at arm’s length with relative ease, and they grew bolder in attack.
Sabella took decisive action at half-time, sending on Higuain and Fernando Gago for Maxi Rodriguez and Hugo Campanaro and reverting to the tried and tested 4-3-3.
WATCH: Sead Kolasinac puts Argentina in front
Initially it was Bosnia who continued to press, with Izet Hajrovic twice working Argentina goalkeeper Romero from range.
But Messi was beginning to see more of the ball, and he twice teed up Aguero, who blazed wildly over before testing Asmir Begovic with a side-foot shot.
A ballooned free-kick suggested that Messi was still feeling his way into the tournament, but moments later he announced his arrival in style with Argentina’s second goal – his first World Cup goal since 2006.
“We had to the misfortune to score an own goal,” said Bosnia coach Safet Susic. “When you play Argentina you have to play well and also have a great deal of luck. It was only because of the psychological pressure that we looked as if we had run out of steam a little bit in the closing stages.
“We hope that the goal we scored will mean a lot to us in the upcoming games. We will probably need to amass four or even six points to go through but I told the lads this wasn’t the crucial match.
“I am convinced we still have everything to play for. Watching Argentina is one thing but playing against them is another. They are a great team with outstanding individuals,” he said.
WATCH: Vedad Ibisevic scores in 84th minute.