Analysis: Coaches, Messi Lead Argentina Through

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 26: Lionel Messi of Argentina icelebrates after he scores the opening goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 26, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Messi and Argentina squeezed by Nigeria and into the knockout stage with a 2-1 victory over the Super Eagles. Their victory combined with Croatia’s victory assured them 2nd place in their group and a date with France on Saturday.

Messi Leads Argentina Through Nigeria

The Magic

It was exactly the first half that they needed. Argentina came out flying pressing Nigeria all over the field. Messi & Higuain pressing their backline, forcing turnovers. Ever Banega, finally given a start, was pinging the ball all over the field. Someone even dug up 2014 Angel Di Maria and graced our presence with him.

The second half was much less of what they needed. Both sides had plenty of decisions to complain about. Javier Mascherano gave away an inexplicable penalty. Marcos Rojo headed the ball off his hand in the box. Higuain missed two more golden chances; shades of all those finals. It looked like Argentina were going to again fall on their own sword.

But then when they needed it most their hero was ready; no, not Lionel Messi this time. The ball found Gabriel Mercado on the right side who whipped in a wicked cross. It went over the near post run of Sergio Aguero, right into the vacated space where Marcos Rojo met the ball with a perfect right-footed curler; 2-1.

The Tactics

Now, the wonderful emotion of the moment aside. The fact that Argentina’s winning goal combination was Mercado to Rojo, at this point, right back to left back, says all. It shows that the reports this week about Sampaoli no longer picking the tactics were true. Mascherano and Messi were pulling all the strings.

All the players would look to Mascherano when they needed a tactical adjustment. Even Messi was talking tactics with Masche; and frankly, if someone within the squad was going to take over, Mascherano is the right man at least. And cameras caught Sampaoli asking Messi if should bring on Sergio Aguero, just wild stuff.

Give some credit to Nigeria, however. They looked like the moment was too big for them in the first half. Messi got all over the ball and all kinds of space. That space did not exist in the second half and that is down to Nigeria’s defence. They didn’t allow Banega to find Messi in all the places that had worked in the first half.

Nigeria was never at a moment of disadvantage. Both goals were defended as well as they could be; Argentina just have more quality. If Argentina had the cohesion and tactical planning that Nigeria have they’d be a tournament favourite. But we all know they aren’t, their just lucky to be moving onto the next round.

The Referee

Finally, we must talk about the referee, Cuneyt Cakir. Cakir is famous as one of the most common referee’s chosen for big, intense matches. However, his decision making is always questionable, as we were reminded tonight. Two moments stick out; the minute surrounding the penalty given away by Javier Mascherano and the Marcos Rojo handball.

After he gave the first penalty, which was a foul but a light foul, he set a precedent. In Argentina’s ensuing attack, Di Maria was brought down lightly in the box, and if you’re going to call the first one, that had to be called. It was incredibly inconsistent to penalize such little contact on one side, but let the defender get away with as much on the other end. He should’ve either given both or none, not one without the other.

The Rojo handball is a tougher decision. Referees are told that when the ball hits off of a body part then hits a hand, it should not be a penalty. But we saw exactly that yesterday in the game between Portugal and Iran. You could make the argument that Rojo’s handball was worse than the one from yesterday. But, by the letter of the law, neither should have been given.

Now Argentina must move on and get ready for a massive Saturday showdown against France. If it weren’t for Argentina’s struggles, France’s struggles would be one of the biggest topics. They look like another team that can be beaten. But nobody knows if this Argentina side are cohesive enough to do it.

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