Argentina, powered by star forward and captain Messi, advanced to the Knockout Rounds with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the last game of Group D play.
Heading into the last day of play in Group D, only one thing was certain: that nothing was certain.
Games kicked off simultaneously with Dark Horse side Croatia having already sealed their spot in the Knockout Rounds, while Argentina, Nigeria, and Iceland all vying to join them there.
Thus the match between Argentina and Nigeria became arguably the most important match of the group.
Nigeria only needed a draw to seal a spot in the next round, while Argentina would advance with a victory and an Iceland defeat. Everything was setup for a great match, and both teams delivered.
To begin the game, the Argentine team was on the front-foot and looked like it had a more clear tactical plan than last time out, with most of the attack filtering through talisman Lionel Messi on the right side.
Head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s plan appeared to involve getting runners ahead of Messi, who had struggled so far in the World Cup, to help carry the weight of a nation that sat on his shoulders alone.
Nigeria looked more than happy to sit back and absorb the Argentinian attack in the early stages, as the Nigerians defended stoutly and looked to capitalize on counter attacks and defensive mistakes
Argentina’s first opportunity of the game fell to Argentina’s left fullback Nicolas Tagliafico, who received a palpable ball after making a great run from the left. However, Tagliafico’s contested shot from the top of the box trickled well wide.
Nigeria’s first chance came just minutes later, when a long offensive throw-in came into the box. After several chaotic attempted clearances by the Argentine defense, the ball fell to Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa.
Musa, the Leicester City hitman, turned and fired a shot, but it was seen comfortably high and wide.
For all of Argentina’s intricate spells in possession, it was a Route One approach that would ultimately give Argentina the lead.
Midfielder Ever Banega picked up the ball in the middle of the pitch before spraying an a lofted through ball over the top of the Nigerian defense. A brilliant touch saw Messi collect the ball off his chest and fire a right footed shot past keeper Francis Uzoho.
It was a much needed goal for both player and country, as Messi finally opened his scoring account for the 2018 World Cup, after single handedly dragging his Argentine teammates there.
It also left Nigeria chasing the game, which surely suited Sampaoli’s side.
Argentina nearly found the second goal of the night in the 25th minute, and it again came through Messi.
Messi, the catalyst for the Argentinians, slipped in Gonzalo Higuain who was starting in place of Manchester City star Sergio Aguero. Higuain tried the first-time chip over a charging Uzoho, but the keeper made a crucial save to keep the score as is.
Again the lead was nearly doubled just 10 minutes later, when Angel Di Maria found himself bearing down on goal with two defenders chasing. Di Maria, the tricky winger, was cynically brought down by Leon Balogun just outside the box, but the referee elected to only give a yellow card as opposed to a red.
It was a bold call from Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir, as he adjudged Balogun to not have denied a clear goal scoring opportunity, and he certainly heard the reactions to the decision from the massive Argentine crowd on display.
Argentina’s ensuing free kick was inches away from giving the South Americans a needed insurance goal, as Messi saw his far-post free kick clatter off the post and away.
Nigeria had a few half-chances to find an equalizer as the half wore down, but the best chance fell to Balogun after his header from a Kelechi Iheanacho cross fell comfortably into the hands of Argentina’s starting keeper Franco Armani.
However, a Nigerian side, which was beaten back into their own final third all first half, found new life in the second half. Five minutes after play resumed, the Nigerians also found a goal, thanks to some rather poor defensive mistakes from Argentina.
A long throw from Musa was poorly dealt with, as three Argentine players attacked the ball with no Nigerian pressure, and the ball bounced out of play.
On the ensuing corner, Balogun was needlessly brought down by Javier Mascherano in the box. Some may argue that the call was “soft,” but Mascherano nevertheless had the Nigerian player wrapped up, something referees have been strict about all tournament.
Nigeria’s talisman Victor Moses stepped up and calmly slotted the penalty past Armani to level the score.
A 1-1 draw would have been enough to see Nigeria through to the next round, so it was no surprise that Argentina sprung into desperation mode and continued to forge the way forward in attack.
Nigeria had an excellent chance to provide the death blow in the 65th minute, when Musa laid off a pass for teammate Wilfred Ndidi who stood 25 yards from goal. However, the midfielder saw his well-struck shot flash just over the bar.
Argentina nearly gifted another goal in the 75th minute, and again it came from a defensive mistake.
A deflected cross traversed into the box, with defender Marcos Rojo misjudging a header and the ball falling into his own arm. Nigerian fans and players alike appealed for handball, but a Video Assistant Referee review saw the referee wave away the call.
Armani, with seven minutes remaining, made what would be the most important save of the game for Argentina.
Nigerian forward Odion Ighalo broke through into the box and went one-on-one with the River Plate keeper, but Armani made himself big and sprawled out to make a crucial save.
Argentina broke the stalemate with four minutes remaining, producing a moment of magic that lifted an entire nation.
Gabriel Mercado, one of three defensive players left on the pitch for Argentina, found space on the right flank and put a sublime cross into the box. Rojo found himself on the end of the cross, and the center back calmly struck a side-footed volley into the bottom corner with the deftness of a striker, sending the Argentine fans into hysteria.
Rojo’s goal lifted Argentina into the next round to complete the “Great Escape.”
However, the Argentines will have a massive task on their hands in the Round of 16 when they take on France.
Though fans saw a rejuvenated and motivated Argentina team against Nigeria, there are still plenty of problems in the squad, namely defensive errors and a questionable relationship between coach and players.
Argentina’s victory left a Nigeria side feeling hard done, after a fair showing by the Super Eagles in the tournament. I, for one, am looking forward to a 2022 World Cup with them in it.
My Man of the Match
It was tough to choose a Man of the Match today, as there was no real standout player for either side.
However, fans saw a different side of Leo Messi today, as the Argentine embraced the captain’s armband and seemed motivated to survive the group. His effort and leadership was essential to Argentina’s success, not to mention his goal was a thing of beauty.
Full Time Stats:
Nigeria 9 — Shots — 8 Argentina
Nigeria 35% — Possession — 65% Argentina
Nigeria 20 — Fouls — 15 Argentina
Nigeria 2 — Yellow Cards — 3 Argentina
Nigeria 0 — Red Cards — 0 Argentina