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Heinze gives Argentina nervous win over Nigeria

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

By IAN PHILLIPS

Associated Press Writer

JOHANNESBURG (AP) Argentina opened its World Cup campaign with a 1-0 win over Nigeria on Saturday, clinging nervously to an early goal from Gabriel Heinze after failing to convert a number of clear opportunities.

Heinze scored in the sixth minute after taking advantage of slack marking to power in a diving header from 12 meters (yards) from Juan Sebastian Veron's corner.

The Nigerians boasted a clear height advantage, but struggled for much of the match to contain diminutive Argentina forward Lionel Messi, who tormented them with his piercing movement and almost-magnetic ball control.

Striker Gonzalo Higuain missed three good chances, including what seemed a certain goal in the fourth minute. Messi, too, came agonizingly close on several occasions.

"We ended up suffering - that's the law of football," Argentina coach Diego Maradona said. "Thank God we won the game. To begin a World Cup in winning fashion gives you a certain sense of calmness."

Messi often struggles to reproduce his brilliant Barcelona performances for his country, but the FIFA World Player of the Year posed an immediate threat to the Nigerians in Maradona's first World Cup match as a coach.

"I felt comfortable," Messi said. "We knew that Argentina had to show its class and I think we did."

Maradona prowled around the technical area with hands clasped behind his back. For the first time as Argentina coach, he wore a suit - a stark contrast to the image of him hurling himself, track-suited, into a puddle on the field when Argentina all but secured qualification with a last-gasp win over Peru last year.

He praised Messi's contribution.

"Football wouldn't be beautiful without seeing Messi touch the football," Maradona said. "He performed magic today on the pitch."

After seeing Higuain spurn the early chance, Messi tried a solo effort two minutes later, forcing a flying, one-handed save from goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.

Enyeama then leapt to thwart Messi after he had cut in from the right-hand touchline and sent in a curling strike.

Nigeria responded with some fluent passing and the main threat to the South Americans came from the imposing Chinedu Ogbuke Obasi, who repeatedly got the better of fullback Martin Demichelis and Veron in midfield, bursting down the left but watching his crosses come to nothing.

The second half began in the same manner, with Argentina pressing to extend the lead. In the 48th minute, Messi flicked a cross from the right wide of the left post.

In the 79th, the misfiring Higuain was replaced by Diego Milito, who failed to make the starting lineup despite his two goals in the Champions League final for Inter Milan. Two minutes later, Messi broke clear but again failed to hit the target, shooting against the goalkeeper's legs.

The Argentines almost paid for their squandered chances, as the Nigerians grew in confidence.

Taye Taiwo came close to an equalizer with a low effort that flew just past Sergio Romero's left post, and substitute Kalu Uche then scooped a weak shot over the crossbar from inside the box with only eight minutes left.

"I'm very disappointed," Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback said. "Unfortunately, there was a mistake from our side that created the corner kick. We were sleeping on one of the corners and that was enough. We were punished this time."

Enyeama said he would take positives from the match.

"We're not going to kill ourselves," he said. "We have two more games to play. We thank God the score was a little encouraging."

The Ellis Park stadium was full of Argentine blue-and-white shirts, with banners of Maradona, Che Guevara and Argentine clubs draped all around.

Lineups:

Argentina: Sergio Romero, Martin Demichelis, Gabriel Ivan Heinze, Walter Samuel, Angel Di Maria (Nicholas Burdisso, 85), Jonas Gutierrez, Javier Mascherano, Juan Sebastian Veron (Maxi Rodriguez, 74), Gonzalo Higuain (Diego Milito, 79), Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez.

Nigeria: Vincent Enyeama, Chidi Odiah, Daniel Olusola Shittu, Taye Taiwo (Kalu Uche, 75), Joseph Yobo, Dickson Etuhu, Lukman Haruna, Sani Kaita, Chinedu Obasi (Peter Odemwingie, 60), Victor Obinna (Obafemi Martins, 52), Ayegbeni Yakubu.

Updated June 12, 2010

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