Somewhere in St Petersburg tonight, a dazed looking Argentine in a number 14 shirt might be heard asking medical staff: Did we win? Did we win?
On another electric evening in the Russia 2018 World Cup, La Albiceleste squeezed into the Round of 16 at the death as they narrowly bested Nigeria 2-1 in a game of football. The boxing contest that featured Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano was too close to call though.
Anybody saw what happened to the other guy?
For the last 30 minutes, the coaches of Argentina and Nigeria might as well as have sat in the stands, as both teams went after each other with pure adrenalin. The team in blue and white stripes trying desperately to land a killer punch, while the men in green, just as feverishly, tried to counter-punch.
At the final whistle, the status quo held though. Of the 10 teams already in the knockout stage, every one of them had been favoured to get there beforehand—although, for Spain, Portugal and, most of all, Argentina, their progress was anything but breezy.
Germany, Brazil and Colombia would hope to maintain that run over the next two days, as the traditional superpowers try to ensure that there are no surprises in the Round of 16.
Four years ago, Italy, England, Portugal and defending champions, Spain, all failed to get past the group stage. Russia, so far, has not been too conducive to such revolts.
Somewhere in the shadows, Vladimir Putin must be chuckling.
There was, arguably, a whiff of gerrymandering in Moscow this morning, as France and Denmark played to a goalless draw—the first barren match of the tournament—which saw both teams go through to the next stage from Group C.
France, who rested several first team players including midfield ace Paul Pogba, play Argentina in Kazan on Saturday morning while Denmark tackle Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday. And if the French and Denmark players are not refreshed enough from their half-pace game today, Mr Live Wire recommends that they watch over their match tonight. It could be repacked and sold as a cure for insomnia.
Elsewhere in Group D, Iceland needed a win to have any chance of progress but, even against a weakened Croatia team, could not manage it.
Iceland captain Gylfi Sigurdsson’s 76th minute penalty was sandwiched between strikes from Milan Badelj and Ivan Perisic, which saw the Croats become only the second team of the tournament, after Uruguay, to advance with a 100 percent record.
There was nothing like such control in today’s marquee match-up, although the opening 45 minutes went to script—well, if you’re a fan of Argentina or Lionel Messi at least.
Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli narrowly staved off a player revolt last week—according to large sections of the Argentine media—and his team selection today was, as expected, radical and unusual in equal measure.
Sampaoli’s team could be divided into two camps. The runners, such as: Marcos Acuna, Maximiliano Meza and Cristiano Pavon; and the technicians, whose ranks include: Paulo Dybala, Ever Banega and Giovani Lo Celso.
For the first time, Sampaoli used Banega from the start and, suddenly, Argentina were sharp, incisive and dangerous. Messi, in particular, looked a man reborn, as he raced on to one Banega through pass, caressed the ball on his thigh and spanked a superb right footer beyond Nigeria’s teenaged custodian, Francis Uzoho, in the 13th minute.
The strike put Messi alongside legends Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta, as the only Argentines to score in three different World Cup tournament. And he could have had another in the 33rd minute but for a superb fingertip save from Uzoho, which pushed his freekick on to an upright. He had another record to himself by full time, as he passed Maradona to complete the most dribbles in World Cup history—Maradona managed 105 at four tournaments while Messi now has 107.
Messi is still some distance from Maradona’s more memorable legacy of a thrilling and decisive World Cup run in 1986. But, at halftime, it at least looked like the former’s team would get to the knockout round yet again.
Nigeria had not had a single shot on the opposing goal in the first half while Argentina’s possession stood at 61 percent. In the four previous meetings between the two nations, Argentina had won them all; and it seemed almost a foregone conclusion at the interval.
But then came a costly indiscretion from Mascherano, as he grappled with opposing defender Leon Balogun while Argentina defended a set piece.
Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed to the spot and then checked with VAR to make sure. Wrestling at set pieces is enforced about as inconsistently as littering in Port of Spain. But, for all their protests, Mascherano and Argentina had to take their punishment.
And Moses’ penalty—his only significant contribution of the game—was nerveless and unerring.
Argentina’s response was entirely the opposite. Sampaoli, who always looks on the verge of a nervous breakdown, immediately turned to his runners, as Meza and Pavon went on—ahead of Dybala, Lo Celso and Sergio Aguero. And, almost immediately, Messi was submerged by chaos again, as blue and white shirts ran in all directions like Cavaliers star JR Smith.
Nigeria could have and probably should have finished them off there and then. But their chances kept falling to striker Odion Ighalo—a frontman with such dodgy aim that he probably could not hit MP Darryl Smith from close range with a basketball.
Argentina had their own errant marksman upfront. In all the melee, a disoriented Gonzalo Higuain apparently thought it was already the World Cup final and promptly hit a presentable chance wide.
With 10 minutes to go, Sampaoli sent on Aguero—who was dropped after criticising the coach—in a move that looked to be more of an insurance policy.
“If we lose, at least nobody would say iz because ah didn’t play yuh!”
But central defender Marcos Rojo became the unlikely hero, as he raced past Higuain and Aguero to meet a right side Gabriel Mercado cross with a sweet volley on his weaker right foot.
In 57 international appearances, it was only Rojo’s third goal. And one of the other two also came against Nigeria—he scored against the African nation in the 2014 World Cup; and it was the winner then too!
Argentina’s exaggerated celebrations showed how close they came to elimination.
Shhh… Don’t tell them that Pogba’s unbeaten France team are next.
World Cup 2018
(Tuesday 26 June)
Australia 0, Peru 2 (Andre Carrillo 18, Paolo Guerrero 50), Group C, Sochi;
France 0, Denmark 0, Group C, Moscow;
Nigeria 1 (Victor Moses 51 pen), Argentina 2 (Lionel Messi 13, Marcos Rojo 86), Group D, St Petersburg;
Iceland 1 (Gylfi Sigurdsson 76 pen), Croatia 2 (Milan Badelj 53, Ivan Perisic 90), Group D, Rostov-On-Don.
(Wednesday 27 June)
Korea Rep v Germany, 10am, Group F, Kazan;
Mexico v Sweden, 10am, Group F, Ekaterinburg;
Serbia v Brazil, 2pm, Group E, Moscow;
Switzerland v Costa Rica, 2pm, Group E, Nizhny Nivgorod.
Knock out match-ups, as they stand today
France (C1)/Argentina (D2) vs Uruguay (A1)/Portugal (B2);
Brazil (E1)/Sweden (F2) vs Belgium (G1)/Japan (H2);
Spain (B1)/Russia (A2) vs Croatia (D1)/Denmark (C2);
Mexico (F1)/Switzerland (E2) vs Senegal (H1)/England (G2).