Suarez faces ignominy, Messi on the way to immortality
Argentinian's superb show against Nigeria serves reminder that the World Cup should be remembered for the right reasons
(Ahmed Musa 4, 47)
(Lionel Messi 3, 45+1, Marcos Rojo 50)
This glorious World Cup needed less than 24 hours to recover.
Lionel Messi atoned for the sins of another with his second uplifting display in as many games.
He's playing Superman to Luis Suarez's Lex Luthor. Whatever dastardly scheme the Uruguayan comes up with to destabilise the tournament, the Little Flea arrives to save the day and salvage the occasion.
Brazilians will never warm up to Argentina. Their neighbourly rivalry is too close, too intense and too historic to truly dissipate. But they are falling for Messi. His wizardry is repairing the broken promises of another South American.
Suarez spat his latest creation across a grubby canvas to hang on a rogue's gallery. Messi took a step closer to his place in the pantheon.
Suarez faces ignominy. Messi moves towards immortality. The prize of their intriguing battle is the soul of this tournament.
In Brazil yesterday morning (Singapore time), the Uruguayan's bite left a vice-link grip on the national consciousness.
Locals talked about nothing else. Even my taxi driver in Rio de Janeiro said, "Aah, journalist - Suarez", and pretended to nibble at his own shoulder.
Uruguay are suddenly top of the news agenda, relegating the World Cup itself to second place.
Like their exasperating centre forward, everyone wants a piece. So they have gone into hiding. Even their bright, invigorating supporters are notable for their absence this morning.
Selective amnesia has taken hold here as two weeks of scintillating football has suddenly been forgotten.
The tournament was all about Uruguay. The world revolved around Suarez.
By this morning, however, the court of public opinion had somebody else in the witness box; another focal point.
In a comic-book battle between good and goofy, good was coming out on top. Football was winning back hearts and minds.
Only 24 hours and an irrepressible genius was required. Messi's positive impact on this tournament cannot be overstated.
Being chased by the inescapable shadow of Diego Maradona must be exhausting.
Dealing with a dodgy defence and a midfield not capable of matching his ingenuity when he's double-teamed has to be dispiriting.
Arguing with Alejandro Sabella over his understandable insistence on protecting that brittle backline can be counter-productive.
But the conjurer refuses to be cowed.
Another two goals from just three on-target shots against Nigeria edged him closer; he's four games from eternal greatness; just 360 minutes away from getting Maradona's monkey off his back.
But his short-term contribution to this World Cup is less personal and more profound.
Suarez's stain hasn't been entirely scrubbed away in a single game, but it's fading here in Rio.
The talk of the town is now Messi.
The Uruguayan's bite still threatens to suck the lifeblood from the Brazilian party as Fifa's disciplinary committee promises to come to an "urgent decision" on his cowardly attack. But Messi is serving as a comforting syringe, injecting optimism back into the tournament, one impudent goal at a time.
Suarez's antics provided a pertinent reminder of what an extraordinary professional Messi has been out here. He smiles down from billboards. He pops up on every commercial break and welcomes visitors at the different city airports. And he's not even Brazilian.
An unofficial ambassador for the upstanding modern superstar, his behavior is exemplary.
Before the Nigeria game, he made a point of speaking to the young girl who had been picked to hold the hand of the world's most famous player. Moments before kick-off, he offered a few words of encouragement, grabbed her hand warmly and led her out.
He put her at her ease. He's leading out one of the World Cup favourites and bearing the weight of immeasurable public expectation, but he stopped to comfort a young girl he doesn't know and unlikely to see again.
Suarez is great with match-day mascots and impressionable kids, too, but Messi doesn't bite opponents when the world's youngsters are watching. He closes his mouth and keeps his head.
He is a role model beyond compare; a beacon of sporting decency. He bites harder than Suarez ever will.
Quite inadvertently, the Argentinian has helped to clean up a foul mess not of his making. His performance against Nigeria this morning feels like the dawn after the darkness. He radiated positivity.
He has turned the tournament's light back on. The World Cup sings when Messi is winning.
'Genius' wants World Cup glory
Lionel Messi has scored in all of Argentina's group games and, while the South Americans clearly depend on their inspirational skipper, coach Alejandro Sabella is wary of pushing him too hard ahead of the knockout round.
The forward scored twice this morning (Singapore time) to help Argentina secure a 3-2 win over African champions Nigeria and clinch first place in Group F.
But Sabella replaced him with Ricardo Alvarez in the 63rd minute, saying after the match: "We needed Messi to rest."
The 27-year-old, who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday, also scored the winner in the 2-1 defeat of Bosnia and the 1-0 victory over Iran as Argentina, one of the pre-tournament favourites, eased towards the last 16.
"We're doing okay," said Messi, when asked if he felt tired. "Now we have five or six days of rest and I'm doing fine."
After lifting the trophy in 1978 and again in 1986, Sabella said it was about time Argentina won another title. Messi the "Genius" could not agree more.
"I believe there is nothing more beautiful than being a world champion with the national team, seeing the joy of the whole country," he said.
Sabella was pleased with the way his Argentina side, who will face Group E runners-up Switzerland next Tuesday, played against Nigeria at the Beira Rio Stadium in Porto Alegre.
"In general, the team improved. We had good control over the ball and were able to damage the opponent," said Sabella.
The coach praised the attack, which he said was being refined. Weaknesses were discussed in private. But he conceded they had to tighten up defensively.
"As an offensive team, we sometimes have problems. But our defence is doing a good job and we will try to make it more robust," said Sabella.
STRUCK ON THE ARM
Nigeria's progress to the last 16 was marred by a freak injury to midfielder Michel Babatunde, who looks likely to miss the rest of the World Cup after he was struck on the arm by a powerful shot from teammate Ogenyi Onazi.
The incident occurred in the 66th minute, with medics bounding up the player's arm while he lay on the pitch before taking him away on a stretcher.
"I think he's got a broken hand and he's going for surgery right now as we speak," Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi said.
"So I'm not sure if he's still going to participate in this World Cup. But we'll see how he goes. But it's not good." - Reuters.