Saint Petersburg : Held by Iceland and humiliated by Croatia, Argentina’s World Cup could already have been all but over, but Lionel Messi and the rest of Jorge Sampaoli’s troubled squad have one final shot at redemption against Nigeria on Tuesday.
Victory against the Africans, who Argentina have beaten in all four previous World Cup meetings, will secure qualification for the last 16 as long as Iceland don’t shock already-qualified Croatia.
Even if Iceland claim a first ever World Cup victory, Argentina could still progress on goal difference. However, bouncing back will take a huge improvement in performance and strength of character so far unseen from the two-time world champions in Russia.
The Argentina federation were even moved on Saturday to confirm that Sampaoli would continue for the final group game among rumours of a rift between players and coach.
“I get the feeling there’s a general anger at the heart of the team,” said Diego Maradona.
“I’m furious and very upset inside, because anyone who wore that shirt can’t see it being trampled like that by a Croatian team that isn’t Germany, that isn’t Brazil, that isn’t Holland or Spain.”
For all his heroics with Barcelona at club level, Messi is still often compared unfavourably in his homeland for his inability to recreate Maradona’s success for the national team.
Messi led Argentina to the World Cup final four years ago and consecutive Copa America finals in the following two years, but all three ended in defeat.
And his 31st birthday on Sunday only served to highlight how time is running out for Messi to win a major international tournament. Without the five-time World Player of the Year, though, it is highly unlikely Argentina would even have qualified.
Messi salvaged a disastrous campaign under three different managers with a hat-trick away to Ecuador in the Albiceleste’s final qualifier. In their hour of need, Argentina need Messi’s best once more. “Leo is fine,” insisted veteran midfielder Javier Mascherano.
A month on from Messi’s rescue mission in Ecuador, he sat out a friendly as Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 back in November to highlight how reliant even a squad containing Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala remain on their number 10. “It is the most critical situation I have experienced, along with the Ecuador game,” Lucas Biglia said.
“But sometimes you have to cling to something.” Argentina are clinging to the hope their captain bails them out again.
Argentina: Sergio Romero, Willy Caballero, Franco
Armania, Gabriel Mercardo, Cristian Ansaldi, Nicolas
Otamendi, Federico Fazio, Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna, Javier Mascherano, Eduardo Salvio, Lucas Biglia, Giovani Lo Celso, Ever Banega, Manuel Lanzini,
Maximiliano Meza, Angel Di Maria, Cristian Pavon, Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero.
COACH: Jorge Sampaoli led the Chilean national football team to their first Copa America title in 2015, after defeating
Argentina in the final.
NIGERIA: Francis Uzoho, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, William Troost-Ekong, Abdullahi Shehu, Tyronne Ebuehi,
Elderson Echiejile, Bryan Idowu, Chidozie Awaziem,
Leon Balogun, Kenneth Omeruo, Mikel John Obi, Ogenyi
Onazi, Wilfred Ndidi, Oghenekaro Etebo, John Ogu, Joel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi, Simeon Nwankwo.
COACH: Gernot Rohr-led Nigeria team became the first African side to qualify for the FIFA World Cup this year after a 1–0 win against Zambia.