|Messi celebrates with Rojo after the latter’s 86th minute winner. (Image from www.goal.com)
They’ve done it! Argentina are through to the round of 16, having beaten Nigeria 2-1 A game filled with yet more VAR controversy and entertainment, both sides really went for it and it was a close contest throughout. The late volley by Marcos Rojo proved decisive in the end.
Sampaoli reverted to four at the back for this game, opting for a 4-2-2-2. Franco Armani stepped up instead of an out of form and shoddy Caballero in goal. Rojo and Otamendi were the centre halves, standard really. The full backs were Mercado, deserved after his performance against Croatia, and Tagliafico keeping his place at left back. Mascherano and Banega were the centre mids, with Angel Di Maria and Enzo Perez the flankers. Messi and Higuain lined up as the centre forwards.
As for the Super Eagles, Gernot Rohr picked a very strong and attack minded side, choosing a 3-1-4-2 formation; Francis Uzoho (GK), Kenneth Omeruo, William Ekong and Leon Balogun (CBs), Jon Obi Mikel (CDM), Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etobo (CMs), Victor Moses (RM/RWB), Bryan Idowu (LM/LWB), Kelechi Ihenacho and Ahmed Musa (CFs).
The first half was lively and for Argentina, it had to be. The tempo was fast and it was La Albiceleste who drew first blood. Messi danced through the Nigerian defence and latched onto a superb 50 yard lob from Ever Banega, smashing it past Uzoho. The game went back and forth from then on, both sides having healthy shares of the possession. The Argentine skipper rattled the post too in the 35th minute, was unlucky not to see his side go two up from his curled free kick effort.
In the second half, there was more of the same, only ten times more feisty. In the 50th minute, more drama with a decision to award Nigeria a spot kick. It went to VAR and still remained, much to the dismay of most watching, particularly Argentina fans. Three defenders went for the same ball, stupidly giving away a corner. Resultantly, Mascherano was carded and had a soft decision against him for an alleged tug on Balogun. Moses then converted the penalty calmly. Ighalo had the chance to give Nigeria a 2-1 lead later on, taking the sting out of the game but could only fire his shot wide. VAR checked for a handball on Rojo, not dissimilar to the one in the Iran game, this time there was no penalty. With time running out and Argentina really needing something potent going forward, they had a nice spell of possession in the final third, leading to a Mercado cross which was swiped in by Marcos Rojo, like a true centre forward. The celebrations and all were testament of how much it meant to the boys in white and blue, with Maradona watching from the stands.
We live to see Messi and his boys progress in the tournament, and hopefully can see the team play with the quality we all know it possesses. This means they’ll play France in the last 16. As for Nigeria, they put up a really good fight and should be incredibly pleased with how well they performed, though they’ll have their tails between their legs knowing how close they came. Cracking game.
Francis Uzoho (6.5) Did well throughout the game and made a few good saves.
Leon Balogun (6.5) Played quite well and lunged into tackles fearlessly. Maybe a bit reckless, with a yellow card to show for his endeavours. Cleverly won his side a penalty backing into Mascherano.
William Ekong (6) Average but didn’t go too wrong at all. Resisted attack well.
Kenneth Omeruo (6.5) Played decently offensively, making his presence known among the opposition. Not too bad defending either.
Victor Moses (7.5) Was potent down that right touchline and cutting in too. Made things happen and was cool to slot the penalty away under pressure.
Wilfred Ndidi (7) This young man has got a lot going for him, and if he channels it he can go far.
Pace, agility and a decent pass on him, not to mention how he contests for the ball as well. Good game.
Jon Obi Mikel (6) Didn’t see too much of him today, but kept things secure in front of the backline.
Oghenekaro Etebo (8) Very good from the 22 year old. Fearless in tackles and on the ball, passing was on point and he did well with set pieces too. Could develop into a very useful central midfielder. Reminds me of Ramires.
Bryan Idowu (6) Nimble and quick, a standard flanker’s game.
Kelechi Ihenacho (7) Threatened the Argentine third on occasions and played well alongside Musa in the first half.
Ahmed Musa (7.5) Electric pace and nice skills, looked dangerous on the ball and got his shots away well. Was good with his long throws.
Alex Iwobi (n/a)
Odion Ighalo (6.5) Did alright being brought on at half time but should really be tucking that shot away and killing the game off.
Franco Armani (7.5) Refreshing to see him play so calmly and collectedly during the entire game. Was very confident and fresh, commanding for the ball all the time. Came in under enormous pressure and stepped up when needed for sure.
Nicolas Tagliafico (7.5) A consistently good left back throughout the campaign. He’s been a real workhorse for Argentina. Top stuff.
Marcos Rojo (8.5) How about that for headlines; the centre back scores a fantastic goal in open play to send his team through and all of Argentina erupting. Really justified his reintroduction into the team. Was so calm to side foot the ball hard into the bottom right corner. Defended with his life too, alongside Otamendi. He was involved in the shambles leading to the Nigerian goal too though, which is a downside.
Nicolas Otamendi (6.5) Better. Better from the Man City centre half. Held up the Nigerian offence very well. He and Rojo were involved in the mix up though, which will be a blemish to an otherwise good game for the pair of them.
Gabriel Mercado (8) Consistently great in the past two games, definitely deserved to be in ahead of Salvio, who looked quite shaky and left things unsafe at the back. Mercado’s work rate was so high and he whipped in a delicious cross to find Rojo in the box.
Javier Mascherano (5) His age is really showing now. Looked sloppy at times, giving the ball away in key positions and lapsing in communication too often. His mistake led to the penalty that really left his side’s hopes hanging in the balance. Made a few strong tackles however, and he was very passionate, playing loads of the second half with a cut to his head without being treated.
Ever Banega (7.5) Superb. Sharp on the ball, his passing was pinpoint, eye of the needle stuff. Lovely assist to his name and did what was needed in central midfield too.
Angel Di Maria (5.5) Hardly on the ball and never looked to change the game if I’m honest. Sad to see him underperforming three games in a row.
Enzo Perez (6) Creative and forward thinking, can’t put many highlights to his name though.
Lionel Messi (9) Oh yes, he’s back. Performed when his team needed him the most, much like in qualifying. A great strike to open the scoring and played with real fire and intent all game long. A worldie of a player, and I’m so glad we’ve got more of him to come in this tournament. He’ll only have his sights on winning, retiring on a high having carried the team thus far.
Gonzalo Higuain (5.5) Not his best game, his play was not up to standard to be frank. Skied a vital chance in the second half that could have been very costly. Linked up ok though.
Maximiliano Meza (5) Was dreadful at times when he came on in the 72nd minute, spurning some great passages of play. Frustrating player to watch and I don’t know why Sampaoli has so much faith in the him.
Christian Pavon (7) Intent and causing problems for Nigeria, coming on for Perez for the last half hour.
Sergio Agüero (6.5) Dug deep coming on for the last 10 minutes. Played well.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Lionel Messi.