Argentina came into their final group match under immense pressure. Two terrible performances had left them teetering on the brink of elimination heading into their match with Nigeria, and everyone involved was under the pump. Lionel Messi had been poor, and, such is Argentina’s reliance upon his brilliance, Argentina had been poor as well. Coach Jorge Sampaoli hadn’t managed to overcome his team’s reliance on its star player, and a group stage exit would have almost certainly spelt the end of his tenure with the Argentinian national side. Now, if anyone was going to reverse the slide, it was Messi. He dragged them into the World Cup almost single-handedly. Now, it was his responsibility to single-handedly drag them out of the group stage. No-one else was going to do it.
The first half started promisingly for Messi, and, by extension, for his team. He found himself on the ball a couple of times, once collecting it in space and drawing a foul from John Obi Mikel as he weaved through the midfield and once finding space in the box but having his cross blocked. For their part, Nigeria looked solid enough. On a couple of occasions Argentina were nearly the architects of their own downfall, with Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa both picking off passes intended for Argentinian defenders. Neither chance came to anything for the Super Eagles. Then, nearly 15 minutes in, Argentina took the lead via a familiar source.Embed from Getty Images
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his first goal of the tournament to give Argentina the lead. Messi had been under immense pressure going into the match, and he delivered by finding the back of the net.
The goal came from a beautiful pass, lifted effortlessly over the Nigerian defence by Éver Banega. It landed straight on Messi’s chest, and the captain didn’t really need to do too much to find the back of the net. It was just a couple of touches to control the cross-field pass, and a finish on a slightly tight angle (with Kenneth Omeruo closing in on him and Francis Uzoho attempting to rush at him to make a save). With his weaker foot. After making a tough finish look like child’s play, Messi ran away in celebration, and all of Argentina breathed a sigh of relief. With Argentina relying on Messi and the little maestro delivering, life was back to normal.
There were signs of Messi’s resurgence as the first half continued. From a standing start, he threaded the ball through the Nigerian defence, just eluding Oghenekaro Etebo’s desperate lunge and leaving Gonzalo Higuaín one-on-one with Uzoho. Uzoho just got there first, and received a kick in the face for his troubles. A few minutes later, Messi had a tailor-made opportunity to bag the second when Ángel Di María burst into space and was fouled by Leon Balogun on the edge of the box. Messi’s free-kick was barely saved by Uzoho, whose fingertips diverted the ball into the post and out. Argentina looked fluent, they had a one-goal lead, and all seemed to be well.
Then they started the second half, and Argentina began to fall apart. It started with a long throw-in. Musa heaved the ball into the box, and picked out three Argentinian defenders. Somehow, the three uncontested players conspired to knock the ball out for a corner, without an opponent in sight. It got worse when Etebo swung the corner into the box, and Javier Mascherano brought Balogun down. Cüneyt Çakır promptly pointed to the spot and booked the offending player, and Nigeria suddenly had a chance to get back into the contest. There was a significant delay before the penalty could be taken, as players jostled for position on the edge of the box and began to butt heads with each other. Victor Moses waited, a slight smile on his face, as the chaos was sorted out, looking completely at ease with his duties as penalty taker. When he finally got his cue, he made no error, bounding up to the ball and stroking it nonchalantly past debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani. There have been plenty of penalties taken at this tournament, but few have been converted with such ease.Embed from Getty Images
Victor Moses athletically celebrates after scoring the equaliser from the penalty spot. Moses’ penalty was very coolly taken, and put the pressure back on Argentina.
Argentina’s old issues resurfaced as they looked to get the goal they needed to win and progress. Messi was suddenly dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, leaving him unable to worry the Nigerian defence. At one point, Messi, Banega and Di María attempted a crafty corner routine. It proved too clever by half as Di María’s pass split the Nigerian defence, only to find that no-one had run into position to receive it. We may never know who the intended recipient was. Mascherano, meanwhile, had blood clearly running down his face. Somehow, nobody seemed to notice. Nigeria had collected a few chances, with Musa and Odion Ighalo looking dangerous when given space. Marcos Rojo headed the ball into his arm, and was lucky that a VAR review concluded that no penalty should be awarded. It was a close-run thing.
Then Argentina scored. It was Rojo, so nearly responsible for giving Nigeria their second penalty of the match a few minutes earlier, who scored it. Gabriel Mercado pushed forward from defence to put in a cross from the right, hoping someone could get on the end of it. Rojo, one of his partners in defence, had pressed forward himself, and he was in a perfect spot to volley the ball into the bottom corner. Argentina had controlled the ball, but Rojo’s excellent goal still seemed to come out of nowhere, and it all but sealed their victory and their passage. It sparked elation from the Argentinians, with the entire substitute bench seeming to jump on top of Rojo in celebration. For Nigeria, with their World Cup dream snatched from them in the cruellest possible circumstances, it will be a tough road to recovery from a demoralising defeat.
Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Nigeria 1 (Moses 51 pen)
Argentina 2 (Messi 14, Rojo 86)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (Tur)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Omeruo (Iwobi 90); Moses, Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu; Musa (Nwankwo 90+2), Iheanacho (Ighalo 46).
Argentina (4-4-2): Armani – Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico (Agüero 80); Pérez (Pavón 61), Mascherano, Banega, Di María (Meza 72); Messi, Higuaín.
1. Ángel Di María (Argentina)
Di María came into the side after being dropped for the catastrophic loss to Croatia, and he challenged the Nigerian defence early with some brilliant runs down the left wing. He showed all of his skills, and he put in a very solid performance in a crucial Argentinian victory.
2. Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Finally, after a pair of underwhelming performances, Messi delivered. He scored the goal Argentina were crying out for, and he was at the centre of almost all of their good work. With the good service he was given throughout, he looked much more dangerous and was able to test the defence with his runs in behind.
3. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo’s seemingly boundless energy was on full display as he contributed in both attack and defence. He even had a strong stint as the designated set piece specialist for the Super Eagles, providing the delivery which led to Nigeria’s penalty and nearly scoring himself with a well-struck free-kick.
4. Éver Banega (Argentina)
Banega added some much needed class in the centre of Argentina’s midfield, and he allowed Messi to push further forward than he had in previous games with his vision and ability to put the ball into dangerous positions. His assist for the first goal was incredible, and his skills were on full display.
5. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses capped off a stunning tournament with another excellent performance, making some key challenges as one of Nigeria’s wing-backs and finishing with a goal after taking a nerveless penalty. He fought hard right to the end, and despite the disappointment of elimination he should take pride in his efforts.