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Argentina claims gold again
by Ridge Mahoney, August 25th, 2008 7AM
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[OLYMPICS] As long as Argentina regards the Olympic soccer tournament as worth the resources and trouble it takes to field a world-class team that conforms to quirky age designations, nothing about the men's competition needs to be changed.

Not every four years, of course, can a brilliant 21-year-old can guide a talented squad to the gold medal. Lionel Messi, in another moment of exquisite vision and skill, laid on a through ball that Angel Di Maria clipped into the net with his own moment of magic to down Nigeria, 1-0, on Saturday.

The IOC and FIFA will doubtless conduct another round of threats and bombastic statements in the next four years, so the 2012 Olympic soccer competition in London could be something completely different, perhaps an under-23 competition with no over-age players.

Italy, to cite one example, didn't use any over-age players. It didn't win the gold medal, either. Argentina's inclusion of Messi prompted his club, Barcelona, to extract a legal ruling that it did, indeed, have the right to refuse his release, since the Olympic tournament doesn't conform to the FIFA international calendar.

By the time of that ruling, Argentina was on its way to the gold medal. It finished the competition with six consecutive wins, and scored 11 goals while conceding only two.

Messi, di Maria and Juan Roman Riquelme orchestrated the attack and once Sergio Aguero, who struggled at first but netted twice in a 3-0 thumping of rival Brazil in the semifinals, got into the attacking flow, no team looked capable of the derailing the Argentines' drive toward a second straight gold medal.

Javier Mascherano, like Riquelme one of the over-age selections, had led Argentina to its 2004 gold medal, and was the only holdover from that team selected by Coach Sergio Batista. The mix of youth and experience carried Argentina through a difficult opponent in Nigeria and dangerously high temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees when the game kicked off at noon local time. Play was stopped twice late in each half to give players a chance to rest and rehydrate.

Staged at the National Stadium, a.k.a. The Bird's Nest, the final proved to be more struggle than spectacle.

Argentina didn't try to match Nigeria's power and pace, preferring to play balls to feet and into space with a premium on keeping possession. In the first half passes ran astray and heavy touches triggered turnovers as nerves and the heat stilted play.

"Maybe the heat was a factor," Batista said. "I think it the game had been played in another part of the day it would have been very different."

Peter Odemwingie hit a free kick that forced Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero off his feet to save in the sixth minute, yet for much of the game, Argentina held offensive catalysts Odemwingie and Victor Obinna in check.

Nigeria nearly broke through late in the half when Odemwingie crossed and Promise Isaac missed it at the first attempt; when it was served back in, Isaac headed it straight to Romero.

The conditions affected Messi as well, yet still he electrified the crowd occasionally by scything through and past Nigerian challenges. On one such occasion he tripped over Dele Adeleye's tackle but play continued as Messi shook his head in disbelief. Di Maria fired in a long shot that Nigerian goalie Ambruse Vanzekin tipped aside.

Five minutes into the second half, Messi worked his way clear near the edge of the penalty area and tested Vanzekin with a hard shot that the keeper deflected. In the 58th minute Messi chose to drop deeper and try to lure the Nigerian defenders up the field; when they dutifully stepped up, Messi spun free from a challenge and suddenly slipped the ball into the left channel that Di Mario measured on the run and expertly chipped over a helpless Vanzekin.

Obinna wasted a great chance to tie the match five minutes later when he shot straight at Romero, and waves of desperate Nigerian attacks produced chances that Argentina managed by holding firm in its defensive third. Ebenezer Alijore shot wide of the post and Sani Kaita fired over the bar from the edge of the penalty area.

"No team has actually played at noon since we started this tournament," said Nigeria coach Samson Siasia, a member of his country's 1994 World Cup team that played in severe heat. "It affected both countries and most players didn't perform to their level because of the heat. But we didn't make the rules. They said play the game at 12 o'clock which I don't think wasn't a good idea."

"This group deserved this," Messi said. "We knew coming in that we may never have this experience again, so we are lucky that everything went well and we got what we wanted."


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