No doubt, Argentina will come into the last Group D game against Nigeria with fury for a win, the only result that can earn them qualification to the second round.
On paper, parading Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano and others, they look superior, but Iceland and Croatia have disproved that. It’s up to the Super Eagles to also stand up to deflate their bloated ego or cowardly bow to them.
It’s their fifth meeting in the World Cup and Argentina had always won, but the margins and analyses of the matches indicate that they have not been overwhelmingly fantastic against Nigeria. They won 1-2 in USA ‘94, 0-1 in Korea/Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010, and 2-3 in Brazil 2014. They however were games that Nigeria could also have won, albeit with little more experience, ball sense, commitment, strength of mind and character and the determination to progress in the competition.
Of note is that Argentina have mostly scored through set pieces and not so much in the run of play. At the Foxboro Stadium, Boston, June 25, in USA ‘94, the Super Eagles boldly strung passes and scored first through Siasia in the 8th minute. The dribble runs by Maradona (as Messi does), Cannigia and Batistuta were well checked but they won through free kicks.
The first was in the 21st minute which Maradona feigned to take but rolled back, carrying and breaking the wall with him in the process and paving an opening for Cannigia to shoot straight in.
The second was in the 28th minute when the referee called another foul by the edge of the box. As he was attending to the protest of the Super Eagles, Cannigia saw their absence of mind, called on Maradona to quickly take the kick by which he ran straight into the box unmarked and curled past Peter Rufai. That was it.
Even with the very young squad Nigeria presented in Korea/Japan 2002, Argentina did not find it easy when they met at the Kashima Stadium, Ibaraki. They also won through a set piece – a 63rd minute corner kick swung from the left across the goal mouth to the far right post and Batistuta drifted away from his marker unnoticed to take a free header into goal. That was it.
When they met again at the Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, in South Africa 2010, Messi was sure a torment but thanks to Vincent Enyeama who produced six bold close saves to deny him any goal in the run of play. Still, Argentina won also from set piece, a corner kick which resulted when Enyeama parried Messi’s strike.
While defenders were busied in the 6 yard by the opponents others marked men by the 18 line, creating a hole in the middle of the 12 box into which Juan Sebastian swung the ball from the right and Gabriel Heinze ran in all alone, unmarked, for a free uncontested header. That was it.
On that occasion, the Super Eagles variation of 442 and 433 formations against Argentina’s 442 ensured a near balanced ball position at 58:42 but attempts at goal and shots on target were far apart at 20:11 and 7:1, showing that the Eagles did not shoot enough and neither accurately too.
The meeting at the Estado Biera, Rio, in Brazil 2014 was a cracker of near equal match going by the 2-3 result. Coach Alejandro Sabella relied heavily on Messi saying, “with Messi, everything is possible”, but except for Messi’s opening goal, Argentina’s victory came also through set pieces.
For their first goal, the Super Eagles were lackadaisical to have allowed a long pass from the middle of the field to Angel Di Maria who perfectly timed his run and stole away from his marker on the left flank to make a free run at goal in just two minutes into the game. His strike slipped past Enyeama but was returned by the upright, and onrushing Messi was quicker to reach the rebound and jabbed in.
Ahmed Musa replied in the 4th with a curl from the left to the right post after receiving a lay from a combination of passes. Then the set piece situation arose again. Messi had taken one from about 40 yards in about the 40th minute which Enyeama blocked off but the Argentines were gifted another at added time in first half which Messi played past the wall and tucked into the angle of the right post as Enyeama arrived late, having been blinded by the wall.
Musa leveled early at the resumption of the second half, with a clinical finish in the 47th minute but, again, in the 50th minute Argentina scored the winner through a corner kick. The Super Eagles defenders had just gathered by the left post waiting for the kick in the six yard, careless and oblivious about the positioning of their opponents some of whom were free around the 12 yard line. The corner kick was dropped above them to the centre of the goal mouth. They all jumped at nothing while Rojo strolled in behind them to freely nod in. That was it.
That game was reminiscent of the Nigerian vs Argentina finals at Atlanta 1996 Olympics. While Lopez and Babayaro’s opening and equalising nodders were masterly, Argentina’s penalty for a second goal remains questionable because Taribo West hardly scotched Ortega before he took a dive which fooled Pierluigi Collina to make the call and Hernan Crespo tucked in. Nigeria fought back in the run of play to cancel their lead and score the winner though.
At the 2005 U20 championship in Utrecht, Holland, Argentina also won through two penalties. In the 40th minute, Messi took a run at goal and Dele Adeleye was adjudged to have floored him even though he actually kicked the ball away from between Messi’s legs as he made several leg overs, practically asking for contact inside the box to give Messi the first goal which Chinedu Ogbuke equalised with a diving header off Olubayo Adefemi’s cross from the right in the 53rd minute.
In the 72nd minute, referee Terje Hague called another penalty against Nigeria even though Aguero had clearly already dived before Monday James had contact with him. That gave Argentina the victory.
Coach Samson Siasia complained bitterly about it all: “He keeps giving all these cheap penalties,” he said but also berated his boys: “If you play in the final like this, you don’t give up penalties like that.”
This same caution should be observed by the Super Eagles as they engage Argentina in St Petersburg on Tuesday. Messi has been demystified by Iceland and Croatia, even by Real Madrid and Chelsea at different times, but he will be seeking to curry sympathy in the box. He is a master in the act.
In Beijing 2008 Olympics finals where they defeated Nigeria 1-0 after Messi’s quick foot put him on advantage in the midfield to lay for Di Maria’s chip over onrushing Ambrose Vanzekin, Messi also sought a penalty as he cunningly threw himself over the foot of Chibuzor Okonkwo in the box, but for referee Viktor Kassai of Hungary saw through the trick.
He will want to do the same over and over and it can be especially dangerous for the Super Eagles who have conceded two penalties in the two matches played so far in Russia. Safe for the VAR, you never can know which side of the bed the referee on Tuesday might wake up from and if he will not pander both to the sympathy of Argentina and the eminence of Messi on the brink of being disgrace from the first round of the World Cup.
So, we can see the pattern with which Argentina has played Nigeria through the years. Not much will change from their tactics but victory over them can be achieved if the Super Eagles are determined to call the bluff of Messi and Aguero, and are hungry enough for a ticket to the next round of the Russia 2018 World Cup. It is especially so as the NFF has made sure that the players lack absolutely nothing to complain about.
With Ahmed Musa’s two life saving goals against Iceland just like he braced against Argentina in Brazil 2014 as also for Leicester against a Messi led Barcelona in Uefa, we cannot be oblivious that Argentina have also taken notice of him and must be planning his check. This means, depending on availability, we must inject a new edge with elements of surprise into the game,
Above all, the Super Eagles can decide on their date with destiny