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Messi hopes to justify appearance with gold medal

Messi hopes to justify appearance with gold medal

Lionel Messi aims to justify his trip to the Olympics with a gold medal for defending champions Argentina, while Nigeria wants to repeat its triumph of 12 years ago when the two nations meet Saturday in the men's football final.
Messi almost didn't make it to China because of the threat of a ban by his club, FC Barcelona. It was one of three clubs that won a legal ruling just before the Olympics kicked off that they could pull their players out. Having made their point, the clubs eventually allowed the players to compete.
Now Messi will line up at the Bird's Nest _ football's only visit to the main Olympic Stadium _ in an Argentina squad that is a mixture of stars of today and tomorrow.
Two of the most talented players around, Messi and playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, are after their first gold medals. Javier Mascherano will want to pick up his second, having played in the Argentina lineup that won the title four years ago in Athens.
Nigeria's lineup is all about tomorrow, but they will be looking to repeat a famous victory from the past.
At the Atlanta Games of 1996, Nigeria became the first African nation to win the football title. In the semifinal, they came from 3-1 down with 13 minutes to go to win 4-3 in extra time against a Brazil lineup that included Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Bebeto. In the final, the Nigerians trailed a star-studded Argentina lineup 2-1 with 17 minutes to go but won 3-2.
Riquelme, one of Argentina's allowed overage players in a competition generally restricted to age 23 and under, was 18 when the Atlanta final was played.
"This is not about vengeance," the Boca Juniors midfielder said. "If we don't win the (gold) medal, we'll not get back the one we lost (in Atlanta)."
Team captain Riquelme is wary of the Nigerian forward line, which has fast, powerful players who excel in shooting from long range. While Argentina beat traditional rival Brazil 3-0 in the semifinal and have a record 11 victories in a row in Olympic competition, Nigeria outplayed Europe's last survivor, Belgium, 4-1 in its semifinal.
"What worries is that they play very well, that they have excellent players," Riquelme said. "But we are going to play the same way we have been playing until now. We're not going to change the way we play against Nigeria. We played a great match against Brazil and we now expect to do the same in the final."
That means trying to launch attacks through Riquelme and unleash Messi on the Nigerian defense.
Having gone so close to being excluded, Messi has put in some sparkling performances in front of enthusiastic Chinese fans in sold-out games in Shanghai and Beijing.
Coach Sergio Batista likely will field Atletico Madrid's Sergio Aquero as Messi's strike partner with Riquelme probing from behind in front of defensive midfielders Mascherano, the Liverpool star who has also been one of the players of the tournament, and Real Madrid's Fernando Gago.
Batista has been forced to call up a replacement goalkeeper because of a serious knee ligament injury to Oscar Ustari in the 2-1 extra time victory over the Netherlands in the quarterfinal. Sergio Romero will start and Nicolas Navarro has been called up from Italy's Napoli to be on the bench.
Argentina's defense will be given a stern test by Nigeria's forwards.
Victor Obinna and Peter Odemwingie love to run at defenders and pull them out of position to create space for their teammates, giving plenty of chances for support players such as Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi, who scored two against the Belgians including a 30-meter (yard) strike.
Nigeria's squad has drawn comparisons with the 1996 team, which included the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West, Daniel Amokachi and Celestine Babayaro, all of whom went on to have careers with top clubs in Europe.
Coach Samson Siasia refuses to compare the two teams and points out that the 1996 lineup, most of whom went on to play at the 1998 World Cup, also had established stars.
"They had a great team with more experience," he said of the team from Atlanta. "We have a team that is younger, ready to give their best at any given time. We will do all we can to reach our goal."


Updated : 2021-01-15 23:18 GMT+08:00