Argentina’s passage to the knockout stages of World Cup 2018 has not been an easy one. Backed by many to top Group D, La Albiceleste needed a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, and an Iceland slip up against Croatia to make it to the knockout stages on Tuesday night.
At a few stages during the last week or so, the picture has looked very bleak for Jorge Sampaoli and his team. In fact, it took until the 86th minute for the South American giants to score their winner against Nigeria.
Incredibly, the hero of the hour was centre-back, Marcos Rojo. The Manchester United star popped up in the Nigeria penalty area to produce a sublime volley. Maybe he wanted to show Gonzalo Higuain how to do it after the Juventus striker ballooned a good chance over the bar from inside the penalty area.
Messi showing signs of life
Argentinian hero Lionel Messi has been the subject of some fierce criticism at the World Cup. However, he upped his game in the first half of this game, producing a far brighter performance, including scoring the opening goal and hitting the woodwork.
He looked sharper and more determined. He merely produced a more lively display. It was the sort of performance the diminutive Barcelona forward failed to deliver in the first two group games.
Maybe the key to his improved display was the fact Nigeria allowed him some room to operate, whereas previous opponents Iceland and Croatia always seemed to have two or three players around him.
Messi was quieter in the second period, but he was still probing at the Nigeria defence looking to space. Just like his team, Messi now has a second chance to prove his doubters wrong.
Banega the key in midfield
Ever Banega is a strange character. The Sevilla star has immense ability. However, he also seems to have a problem with consistency and discipline. Many have questioned his mental attributes, as he can be quite rash.
The 29-year-old is a joy to watch on his day, though. He has the vision and ability to create things out of nothing from the centre of the park. His fantastic pass to create Argentina’s opening goal against Nigeria illustrated that ability perfectly. It was not the only incisive pass Banega made, though, as he orchestrated Argentina attacks from his central midfield berth.
Argentina have lacked creativity and attacking ideas at the World Cup so far. Banega presence in the centre of the pitch changed that. The former Boca Juniors star could be Argentina’s World Cup wildcard.
Argentina must do better against France
Finishing second in Group D has set-up a last 16 meeting with France on Saturday in Kazan. Les Bleus have not been at their best in Russia, but Argentina have been woeful for much of the tournament.
La Albiceleste must do better against their highly rated opponents, or they will be heading home. Some players have struggled to live up to expectations in the Argentina team, and they look low on confidence.
Boss Jorge Sampaoli has a massive job on his hands guiding his lacklustre team past Didier Deschamps exciting young team. However, they have now been given a chance, and the South American’s cannot afford to blow it.
Can Argentina progress beyond the last 16 at World Cup 2018?