Argentina, Nigeria face off with last-16 spot on the line

A point will be enough for Nigeria to progress, while Argentina must win to qualify.

Jorge Sampaoli is facing the heat with Argentina facing elimination from World Cup.   -  Getty Images

A World Cup without two-time champion Argentina was a real possibility around October 2017. The team, with only seven wins from its 17 matches, needed a victory while playing away from home against Ecuador in its last qualifying game. It was skipper Lionel Messi, often derided for his below par performance with the national side, who came to the rescue, scoring a hat-trick in a 3-1 win, helping Argentina finish third in the South American qualifiers.

Watch: Head- to- head preview: Argentina vs Nigeria

The Barcelona star, however, has failed to showcase his genius in Russia, so far, as Iceland and Croatia – marking him heavily – have managed to keep him sedated. With just a point from its two games, Argentina is in dire need for its talisman to fire and ensure a longer stay in the quadrennial event.

Read: Idowu wants to make it Messi's World Cup farewell

An unlikely Nigerian win over debutant Iceland has offered the South American giants a lifeline, and a comfortable win over the African side in its last group game will ensure its progress to the knockout stage. An Icelandic win over already-qualified Croatia, however, can make things complicated, with goal difference coming in play to decide the second spot in Group D.

Possible scenarios

  • Croatia is through after two victories.
  • Nigeria will qualify with a win over Argentina. A point, too, would be enough if Iceland fails to beat Croatia.
  • If Argentina and Nigeria play out a draw, Iceland will advance if it beats Croatia by a two-goal margin and also score at least one more than Nigeria.
  • Argentina will qualify by beating Nigeria coupled with Iceland losing to Croatia. If Iceland beats Croatia, then Sampaoli’s side can still qualify if it beats Nigeria by two more goals than Iceland's victory margin. If Argentina and Iceland win and finish with identical records the second spot will be decided by their disciplinary records and then a draw of lots. Argentina has three yellow cards to Iceland’s none.

Javier Mascherano, veteran of three World Cup, understands the magnitude of the task ahead and said: “We know the situation is tricky. We have to be united, to express our opinions, and do everything possible so the team goes into the game in the best position.”

Read: Should Argentina drop Lionel Messi for Nigeria clash?

La Albiceleste has won its previous five World Cup encounters against the African nation, which is making its sixth Finals appearance. “We must take even half chances, and be on the offensive as much as possible. Perhaps, a draw could be good to qualify, but we cannot think and play for a draw,” Nigerian coach Gernot Rohr said. “Sometimes, when you play for a draw, you get punched in the face late in the day. It will be a tough game and we must go with a tough mentality from the start to the end.”

WATCH: Mascherano's insights on Argentina's campaign

Despite the bluster, Rohr is expected to adopt a 4-2-3-1 formation, moving away from the more attacking 3-5-2 system employed in the win over Iceland.

For Argentina, River Plate goalkeeper Franco Armani is likely to replace the error-prone Willy Caballero in goal and Jorge Sampoli, criticised for his regular tactical tinkering, might opt to play with a two-man frontline with Juventus pair Gonzalo Higuain and Paolo Dybala operating ahead of Messi in a 4-3-1-2 formation. The experienced Ever Banega and Angel Di Maria will start – after sitting out the Croatia game – offering the side the much-needed creativity, width and space.

A win is a must for the Argentines and the country and also the rest of the world will be much relived if Messi can finally come out of his shell and sprinkle some magic in this grandest stage.

(Video courtesy: FIFA TV)

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