Argentina left it late, but the Albiceleste live to fight another day at the World Cup thanks to a wonder strike from Leo Messi – here are the 5 lessons learned
Jorge Sampaoli insisted that Argentina’s World Cup started against Nigeria and their final group game was the first of five finals when quizzed by the media a day before the crucial game in Saint Petersburg.
If that were the case La Albiceleste put the pain of the previous four years behind them with a last-gasp victory but with France now lying ahead in the last 16, there is still much to ponder.
1 – Lionel Messi answers critics
The weight of being the world’s best player and Argentina’s saviour had taken its toll on Lionel Messi and despite carrying the nation to Russia it was the number ten’s missed penalty against Iceland and the forlorn look on his face before Croatia that made the headlines.
Against Nigeria, Messi’s World Cup began and aside from once more inspiring his side to victory, the Argentina captain ended his run of 662 minutes at the World Cup without a goal.
Messi’s fabulously taken strike was his first since he found the net against Nigeria in 2014, making half of all his World Cup goals against the Super Eagles.
2 – Ever Banega provides the perfect partner
Argentina’s midfield has been crying out for a creative passer capable of splitting defensive lines and although it remains a mystery as to why it took until the third group game for Jorge Sampaoli to turn to Ever Banega, the results were immediate.
The Sevilla schemer saw plenty of the ball during the opening 45 minutes and was constantly looking forward, aiming to find teammates in pockets of space.
The breakthrough came directly from this – Banega spotting the run of Messi, now able to look for those spaces behind rather than drop deep, and the ball was lofted with precision for the number ten to bring down and rifle into the net.
Banega’s continued place in the side is a must.
3 – Argentina change shape
Whether the decision was Sampaoli’s or the players or simply the result of an agreement following a frank discussion in the aftermath of the Croatia defeat, Argentina were improved.
Franco Armani was an assured presence in goal on his debut, the familiar back four was more comfortable than in Sampaoli’s three, Banega linked play as the side had craved and Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi provided a sense of balance either side of Gonzalo Higuain.
At least for the opening 45 minutes. Things became ragged after the break but the system at least should be the one Argentina use going forward. Whether Mascherano, Di Maria and Higuain remain the best options in their specific roles is less clear but there were signs of progress.
Javier Mascherano no longer the dependable one
You can point to several worse cases of holding that have gone unpunished at this tournament but Javier Mascherano always ran the risk when he wrapped his arms around Leon Balogun at a corner.
However, it wasn’t only the penalty and the decline of Argentina’s once so dependable commander-in-chief has never been clearer. Barcelona knew that El Jefecito wasn’t a suitable number five almost ten years ago but Argentina still persist and with his passing way off against Nigeria, Mascherano almost proved costly.
As it was, the battle-hardened warrior ended the game with blood dropping from his face having given every last drop of sweat for the cause and that is all that Argentina will likely remember.
A united front
Even by Argentinian standards it has been a fraught week but the latest round of fighting with the nation’s gossip-mongering press appears to have further galvanised a group desperate to make amends of the consecutive final defeats over the past four years.
“We were sure that we were going to win this game,” Messi said after the match.
“It’s marvellous to have been able to win in this way. It’s a deserved happiness. I knew that God was with us and that he wasn’t going to let us go out.”
“This shirt is above everything.” Argentina may not have responded well tactically to Nigeria leveling but the spirit within the group at full time was clear.