Nigeria 1-2 Argentina: match report
Argentina kept their World Cup hopes alive after a scare against Nigeria on Tuesday night. Messi had given them hope in the first half, which was cruelly snatched from them in the second half before Marcos Rojo appeared in the penalty area to bury a volley into the bottom corner with the clock ticking down in the game and on their hopes of World Cup glory.
It could have been Lionel Messi's last World Cup game and after their meltdown against Croatia and all of the talk that ensured after that loss, you wouldn't have been out of line to consider them broken. But the battled and bloodied Argentinians fought to the death to give themselves a chance of a deep run into the tournament or, at the very least, one more day in the sun.
Messi slotted home after 14 minutes when Ever Banega lofted a lovely ball into his path. With just three touches, the ball was rocketing past Francis in Nigeria's goals. Things took a turn for the worse from there though. Nigeria took control and Argentina took a backseat.
They didn't score but could have had a penalty when Rojo kicked Iheanacho in the face in the penalty area at the end of the first 45 but escaped punishment.
Mascherano was as lucky though as he pulled Balogun back in the area at the start of the second half and conceded a spot kick. Victor Moses got a chance to display his nerves of cast iron steel to roll the ball beyond Armani to level things and put the Argentinians out as it stood.
There was huffing and puffing and chances from both sides but it looked like it would end a goalles draw when Gonzalo Higuain drove over from a very nice angle. There was more drama to come though.
Rojo popped up with a peach on 86 minutes. Gabriel Mercado sent the ball in from the right and the defender could not have caught the ball sweeter from the six-yard line as Francis was left fastened to the floor as he watched the ball shoot by him again.
It sent Argentina through to the last 16, turning heartbreak into scenes of joyfulness. Di Maria wept, Argentina fans sang and the players surrounded Messi to celebrate their qualification. They will play France on Saturday at 16:00 and whether you want to believe it or not, they are now contenders to go all the way.
Nigeria vs Argentina live | World Cup 2018 Group D: latest news
Nigeria vs Argentina live | World Cup 2018 Group D: match preview
Argentina would not have predicted the hole they find themselves in Russia before the tournament, which they went into among the favourites as is customary, but anyone who watched their qualification campaign would have had more than an inkling that Jorge Sampaoli’s World Cup campaign was built on sand.
It required a Leo Messi hat-trick in the final round of qualifying to ensure the Albiceleste did not suffer the ignominy of missing out on the tournament entirely and it may well require another wave of the diminutive magician’s wand to prevent his side from stumbling at the first hurdle in Russia.
There are various permutations in Group D but only one that need concern Sampaoli and his misfiring players: Argentina have to beat Nigeria in Saint Petersburg to have any chance of reaching the last 16. They also need Croatia to beat Iceland, and Zlatko Dalic has already indicated that he will rest several key players in the other group encounter on Tuesday.
Argentina have been crucified by their national press after a 1-1 draw with Iceland in their opening game and a 3-0 hiding from Croatia in their second.
Redemption is not out of the question for Sampaoli’s side but they will need to show considerably more guile and grit than they did against Croatia to get past an energetic and skilful Nigeria side who will be acutely aware that a draw do them quite nicely unless Iceland are battering Dalic’s side in Rostov-on-Don.
Sampaoli may be tempted into a complete rethink after his side were humbled last time out. Ángel di María, Paulo Dybala, Giovano Lo Celso and Gonzalo Higuaín all started on the bench against Croatia and given it is a must-win game, the Argentina coach is not afforded the luxury of a patient approach.
Whether Willy Caballero retains his place in goal after his error handed Croatia winger Ante Rebic a free goal to start Croatia’s rout remains to be seen but as was said before the tournament, Argentina’s wealth of attacking talent is easily unbalanced by a mediocre midfield and a suspect defence.
Nigeria will go into the game with plenty of confidence after beating Iceland 2-0 in their previous game – the first time the Scandinavians had conceded more than once at a major tournament – and in the knowledge that Argentina will be bowed by the weight of pressure on their shoulders from the outset.
And if Sampaoli and his charges needed any further proof that the stars are aligned against then in Russia, Achilles the cat, who has correctly predicted the score of all three World Cup matches played so far in Saint Petersburg, has tipped Nigeria for victory.