Hello. Before we begin, please join me in a moment of silence. It’s the done thing when Argentina play these days – although there’s a chance that the state of mourning after last Thursday’s capitulation to Croatia was a tad premature. They might be in a state of total disarray, with word spreading that the players have completely ostracised Jorge Sampaoli and will pick the team themselves, but they could still squeeze into the second round of the 2018 World Cup.
All Argentina are likely to need is a victory over Nigeria and, if history’s a reliable guide, that shouldn’t be asking too much. These two know each other well. Four times they’ve met in the group stage of the World Cup; four times Argentina have triumphed by the odd goal. Nigeria are contesting their sixth World Cup and it was almost inevitable that they would be drawn with their bogey team. It happened in 1994, it happened in 2002, it happened in 2010, it happened in 2014 and it’s happened again in Russia. If Argentina can maintain their supremacy over the Super Eagles, the cracks will be papered over, assuming Iceland don’t rack up a big win over Croatia in Group D’s other encounter (you can read more on the permutations here).
But Nigeria, who are likely to need no more than a point to finish second, believe the balance of power is finally going to swing their way. Gernot Rohr’s sprightly side were poor in their opener against Croatia, but they were resurgent in their second game against Iceland, with Ahmed Musa scoring two fine goals, and they’ll take confidence from the memory of beating Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in Krasnodar last November.
Admittedly Argentina were without Lionel Messi that day – but they’ve more or less been without Lionel Messi throughout this tournament. The world’s best player had a penalty saved against Iceland. He looked fed up during the anthems before the Croatia game and he wept after a 3-0 defeat that shone an unflattering light on Argentina’s dysfunction. Argentina need him now more than ever, even more than they needed him when he dragged them to this tournament with a hat-trick against Ecuador, but there can be guarantees Messi has it within himself to save his country from a their first group-stage exit since 2002. These are the moments when you remember that he really is only human. And it isn’t easy to stay motivated when your goalkeeper’s Willy Caballero, your manager has some very sophisticated tattoos and your country’s talent supply has dried up because of ineptitude at the top.
Then again, some humans are a bit better at football than others. Similar obituaries were being prepared on Saturday night, when Germany were on the brink of a humiliating early exit. Toni Kroos had other ideas, though, and you wouldn’t put it past Messi to rise from his torpor here. All bets are off if he wakes up. At the moment, though, the smart money’s on another sombre display in Argentinian television studios.