Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.
Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.
Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.
His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.
The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.