We, the passionate — and professional — followers of football are an impatient lot. We pick our favourites through a seemingly objective weighing in of a player’s pros and cons and bestow our affections and loyalty on one who hits the sweet spot between technical acumen and undefinable charm. Should on-ground realities start chipping away at the image of this all-encompassing perfect being, he will be passionately defended. “He’s human, after all,” you announce, “Not god.” But in your heart of hearts, he was god, wasn’t he? Till he wasn’t. Our loyalty, after all, also gives us the right to denounce and discard when it’s not repaid.
For fans of Lionel Messi, the group stages had been heartbreaking so far. Messi had remained largely peripheral, offering just 96 passes (88 percent accuracy) while covering 15.34 kms as he was often forced to drop deep in the first two games.
But mercifully the Argentine picked the must-win game against Nigeria, here, to expose us to his full repertoire. As Argentina made five changes, the skipper, playing upfront in partnership with Gonzalo Higuain, showed more urgency to get involved in the game, benefitting from the presence of the experienced Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria on the field.
He was soon to send the stands in a rupture as he opened his account in Russia in the 18th minute – deftly controlling a lofted cross from Banega, who had picked possession in the half-way line, – before breezing past Kenneth Omeruo to shoot into the top outside corner of the net.
His sixth overall World Cup goal came after 662 minutes of play (210 in this World Cup), with coincidentally his last strike also coming against Nigeria in the 2014 group stage.
Nigeria, playing a 3-5-2 system, looked visibly rattled as Argentina further enforced its will on the game with a mix of brute physicality and creative play. In the 29th minute, Messi, again weaving some magic, played a pass into the box, but Francis Uzoho, in the Nigeria goal, did well to hold his ground and thwart Higuain, who failed to lift the ball over the young goalkeeper.
Banega, exerting influence in the central midfield, had Di Maria chasing a long ball in the 32nd minute only for the latter to be clipped mercilessly by Leon Balogun. Messi curled a left-footed free-kick over the wall, but the slightest of touches from Uzoho pushed the ball to ricochet off the post.
Nigeria, pegged back, saw Ahmed Musa chase a ball on the far right, running past Nicolas Ottamendi, but the World Cup debutant Franco Armani sprinted out of the box to come up with a clean tackle. The young keeper's confidence should go a long way to soothe a few frayed nerves in the Argentine setup, which must still have nightmares of Willy Caballero's horror show in Croatia's opening goal the other night.
But, Argentina's lack of coherence in defence came back to haunt it early in the second half as Javier Mascherano, clearly past his prime, was penalised in the 49 minute for holding on to Balogun inside the box. Chelsea's Victor Moses, displaying nerves of steal, waited for Armani to commit before rolling the ball the other side.
The goal brought extra verve to Nigeria's game as Musa used his pace to be a constant threat from the left. The two-time champion was lucky to escape from conceding another penalty after Marcos Rojo headed the ball onto his hand inside the box in the 78th minute. Referee Cuneyt Cakir, however, turned down Nigeria's appeal after consulting VAR.
With Argentina desperately searching for the winner, Pavon’s attempted cross in the 82nd minute was blocked away for a corner and a poor delivery did little to alleviate it's misery. But the team had an unlikely savior in Rojo, who bombed forward into the box to coolly slot the winner from a clipped Gabriel Mercado cross in the 87th minute.
The tense stadion erupted in joy, Diego Maradona went wild in the stands as the Argentines finally delivered – and results conspired elsewhere – to keep alive Messi's hopes of winning the elusive national silverware.
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