Argentina prevail under fire to leave Nigeria heartbroken

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.

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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.

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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.

Top 5
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.

Devastating Musa brings Iceland crashing back to earth

Gylfi Sigurðsson looked calm as he stepped up to the penalty spot. The pressure was on, and as he stepped up to take the kick, awarded after Tyronne Ebuehi’s late challenge on Alfreð Finnbogason, Sigurðsson was carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Iceland had gone into their clash with Nigeria brimming with confidence after they held Argentina on World Cup debut, and against a Nigerian side coming off a poor first-up display they seemed to be in with a good chance of notching a historic win. It hadn’t turned out that way. Ahmed Musa had run riot and collected two goals, and Sigurðsson’s penalty was shaping as their only hope of getting some kind of result. He blasted it over the bar, ending Iceland’s chances of a remarkable comeback and breaking the hearts of a nation in the process. The penalty had given Iceland hope of a miracle. The miss emphatically extinguished it.

The first half was an interesting one, with Nigeria dominating possession but failing to even take a shot, and Iceland sitting back but managing to create all of the half’s dangerous opportunities. It was Sigurðsson, Iceland’s main midfield creator, who took the early initiative. He forced Francis Uzoho into a tough save with a well-placed free-kick, and followed up a few minutes later by working his way into space and testing the young goalkeeper once again. Nigeria settled after Iceland’s fast start, but they couldn’t create any opportunities against Iceland’s typically staunch defence. The penalty-saving hero against Argentina, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, had absolutely nothing to do, and Iceland looked to be in a decent position.

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Icelandic fans perform their trademark Viking Thunderclap in the stands of the Volgograd Arena. It was a disappointing result for Iceland, but the famous celebration was as loud as ever.

They started to find more chances as the half drew to a close. Birkir Már Sævarsson played a dangerous ball into the box, but Leon Balogun’s slight touch kept Birkir Bjarnason and Jón Daði Böðvarsson from getting on the end of it. Finnbogason got close when he connected with Sigurðsson’s free kick directly in front of goal, but he didn’t get a solid enough touch on the ball to bundle it into the back of the net. Iceland continued to threaten in first half injury time, but they couldn’t provide any further challenge to Uzoho’s goal. When the half time whistle blew, Iceland were on top. When the teams came back out after the interval, things began to turn.

Nigeria came out firing after half time, and Iceland got caught out by a lightning Nigerian counter-attack less than four minutes after the resumption. Left-back Hörður Björgvin Magnússon was caught out by Victor Moses, who spread quickly into space and had time to cross it into the centre. The ball found Ahmed Musa, whose first touch was brilliant. Expecting the ball to keep travelling towards the back post, Ragnar Sigurðsson was wrong-footed when Musa tapped it the other way, giving the dynamic striker the space he needed to slam it into the back of the net. Suddenly, Iceland were behind, and Sigurðsson lay on the ground after taking a blow to the head in Musa’s follow-through. The centre-back returned with a fluorescent pink bandage strapped around the afflicted area. Unlike Sigurðsson, Iceland’s best football never resurfaced.

Things didn’t look good for Iceland in the minutes after the goal. Nigeria continued to knock the ball around with confidence, aware that Iceland weren’t putting them under pressure when they had the ball and equally aware that they held all the cards. Moses was beginning to make Iceland’s defenders nervous with his pace and skill on the right, and Iceland weren’t creating the chances they did in the first half. Their play was flat, and they needed a spark that didn’t seem to be coming. Then Musa scored the second, and seemingly killed off their chances.

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Ahmed Musa (right) competes for the ball against Hörður Björgvin Magnússon. Musa’s brilliant second half dismantled Iceland’s defence and allowed Nigeria to take a comfortable win.

It had been coming. Seconds before he doubled the Super Eagles’ advantage, the rapid striker rammed a thunderous shot into the bar, and although Iceland survived it was clear that they were under the pump. When Iceland’s players were committed to the attack, Musa struck. The ball was bombed out of defence, and Musa left Kari Árnason in the dust as he pursued it in behind. When Halldórsson came to meet him, Musa eluded the desperate clutches of the keeper with his incredible speed, and found himself faced with an open goal. Sverrir Ingi Ingason, on after Ragnar Sigurðsson was finally substituted, stood on the goal line but couldn’t do a thing as Musa’s composed finish found the top corner.

Iceland tried to reduce the deficit, but there just seemed to be something missing. Passes just didn’t quite hit the target, and their moves didn’t quite come off. The award of the penalty had momentarily put some wind back in their sails, but as their star missed the team seemed to deflate, limping over the finish line against a confident Nigerian team who never looked like giving up their lead. In recent times, Iceland have made a name for themselves with their incredible discipline and ability to recover from seemingly any setback. Now, coming off the heights of their incredible World Cup debut with the weight of expectations on their shoulders, they just couldn’t match it when Nigeria put everything together. For once, they suffered a blow from which they couldn’t recover.

Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Nigeria 2 (Musa 49, 75)
Iceland 0
Referee: Matthew Conger (NZ)
Nigeria (3-5-2): Uzoho – Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Balogun; Moses, Etebo (Iwobi 90), Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu (Ebuehi 46); Musa, Iheanacho (Ighalo 85).
Iceland (4-4-2): Halldórsson – Sævarsson, Árnason, R Sigurðsson (Ingason 65), Magnússon; Gíslason, Gunnarson (A Skúlason 87), G Sigurðsson, Bjarnason; Böðvarsson (Sigurðarson 71), Finnbogason.

Top 5
1. Ahmed Musa (Nigeria)
When he had room to run, Musa’s pace was terrifying, and when it was coupled with excellent touch and good finishing the striker became a lethal attacking force for the Super Eagles. He finished with two thoroughly deserved goals, and he will come into their key match with Argentina full of confidence.
2. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses started the second half with pace and purpose, creating Nigeria’s first goal with an excellent cross and keeping Iceland on the back foot with his ability to make an impact cutting in from the right wing. He has been in great form at this tournament, and will be looking to keep it up.
3. Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Ndidi was heavily involved in defensive midfield, working well with John Obi Mikel and Oghenekaro Etebo to shield the back four and make life very difficult for Iceland’s attackers. He even managed to make something of a contribution to the attack, forcing Halldórsson into a tough save with a dangerous shot from distance.
4. Gylfi Sigurðsson (Iceland)
Penalty miss aside, Sigurðsson had a strong game. He looked like the only Icelandic player capable of creating his own opportunities, and he gave Uzoho a stern test on a few occasions. He will be disappointed with his late penalty miss, and it’s unfortunate that one error will define an otherwise strong performance.
5. Oghenekaro Etebo (Nigeria)
Etebo knows how to run, and he did plenty of hard work transitioning between defence – where he did the bulk of his good work – and attack. His energy was impressive throughout, and it’s no coincidence that he was the only other Nigerian player in the box for both of Musa’s goals.

Workmanlike Croatia shut out toothless Nigeria

On paper, this match-up was tantalising. Croatia and Nigeria both have the capacity to thrill and disappoint, and it seemed like the clash between the two could provide plenty of excitement and plenty of drama. In the end, it achieved neither, with the Croatians putting in a workmanlike but rather unspectacular performance and their opponents struggling to make headway in attack. By the final whistle Croatia had a two-goal buffer, with an own goal and a penalty their reward for a disciplined performance against a toothless Nigerian side.

Croatia settled into the rhythm of the game fairly quickly, knocking the ball around with confidence, controlling the majority of possession and largely keeping the Nigerians away from their attacking third. For all that control, however, they never really looked like making an impact on the scoreboard, even if their front four of Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić, Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić were occasionally threatening. Then, after a reasonably mundane first half hour in which neither team looked like making inroads, Croatia took the lead.

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Croatia celebrate after opening the scoring through an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal. The goal was very scrappy, with a number of players getting touches to bundle a Luka Modrić corner into the back of the net.

The goal originated from a corner, but it still came slightly out of the blue. Luka Modrić, whose new role deeper in midfield had left him largely isolated from the attack, delivered the corner perfectly to Rebić at the front post. That was where the beauty of the move stopped. Eventually the ball made its way across goal, rolling meekly past Francis Uzoho into the back of the net. No one player could be called responsible, with Rebić’s flick-on header, Mandžukić’s outmanoeuvring of William Troost-Ekong and subsequent headed shot and Oghenekaro Etebo’s unlucky diversion of said shot into his own net all contributing to the end result. It was scrappy, but it did the trick for Croatia. The fact that they still hadn’t put a shot on target didn’t really matter too much.

After taking the lead the Croats simply continued to play as they had before, doing nothing spectacular but keeping the Nigerians from gaining any traction with their controlled passing and security in possession. Victor Moses threatened to break free on a couple of occasions, but a couple of near-breaks was hardly enough to send shivers through the Croatian defence. The half time break didn’t halt their charge, and they created a few more chances but, most importantly, they were secure in their one-goal advantage and never gave Nigeria the window of opportunity they were after. Then they scored again, and the result was beyond doubt.

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Francis Uzoho (front) makes a save to deny Mateo Kovačić (second from right) late in the game. Uzoho became the first teenage goalkeeper to appear in the tournament since 2002, and he put in a decent showing.

Once again, the goal started with a corner and Modrić’s excellent delivery into the penalty area. This time, however, it didn’t pick out a Croatian player, with Leon Balogun heading the ball away from a dangerous spot and Nigeria emerging with the ball, seemingly unscathed. Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, Troost-Ekong decided to use illegal tactics to keep Mandžukić out of the action, wrapping both arms around the big striker before bringing him to the ground in a move which would not have been out of place at a WWE event. Even more unfortunately for Nigeria, Troost-Ekong’s roughhousing of his dangerous opponent did not go unnoticed by Sandro Ricci, allowing Modrić to slam the penalty home.

Down two goals, Nigeria tried desperately to make a final push, but there was no coming back for the Super Eagles and their lacklustre attack. Croatia had a chance to increase their lead late when Mateo Kovačić forced a good save from Uzoho, but that missed opportunity won’t weigh too heavily on their minds after their professional ninety minute effort. Nigeria’s struggles, on the other hand, show they have a long way to go, and they will need to turn things around quickly if they want to hang around past the group stage.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen)
Nigeria 0
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Modrić; Perišić, Kramarić (Brozović 60), Rebić (Kovačić 78); Mandžukić (Pjaca 85).
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Uzoho – Abdullahi Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Idowu; Ndidi, Etebo; Moses, Mikel (Nwankwo 88), Iwobi (Musa 62); Ighalo (Iheanacho 75).

Top 5
1. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić played a key role in both of Croatia’s goals. He was the last Croatian to touch the ball before Etebo diverted it into his own net, and he won the penalty that sealed the win after Troost-Ekong crudely felled him in the box. He got himself into good positions throughout and used his size to his advantage, and he caused plenty of issues for the Nigerian defence.
2. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić was everywhere for the Croatians, spending time on both the left and right wings and working very hard wherever he happened to be positioned. He was tireless in both attack and defence, chasing up every ball and proving to be a handful whenever he received possession in attack. He was the most dangerous player early on, and did enough to earn another run in a strong Croatian team.
3. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić started the game quietly, but his set piece delivery created all of his side’s meaningful chances and Croatia’s play improved dramatically when he got more time on the ball in attack. He sealed the win with a perfectly taken penalty, and, given his high standards, left himself plenty of room for improvement for the rest of the tournament. He could have a big impact.
4. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses was Nigeria’s most active player, and was the only Super Eagle on the field who looked capable of making his own opportunities. He showed glimpses of his immense talents and gave Ivan Strinić plenty to think about, and he was one of the hardest workers on the field. If he gets some support, he could be a very dangerous player in the rest of the tournament.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić’s role was mainly in the background, but he was very secure with the ball at his feet and that security allowed the rest of the team to thrive. He showed his vision and quality with some of his incisive passes, and he performed his defensive duties in the centre of midfield well. When he and Modrić find their rhythm as a combination the Croatians will be tough to stop.