NEW DELHI: Held by Iceland and humiliated by Croatia, Argentina’s FIFA 2018 World Cup campaign could already have been all but over, but the 1986 winners have one final shot at salvation against Nigeria on Tuesday. Victory against the Africans, who Argentina have beaten in all four previous World Cup meetings, will secure qualification for the last 16 as long as Iceland don’t shock already-qualified Croatia.
However, despite all odds, former football captain Diego Maradona feels Argentina could defy all obstacles like they did in 1982 and 1990 and clear their path to the knockouts.
Even if Iceland claim a first ever World Cup victory, Argentina could still progress on goal difference. But bouncing back will take a huge improvement in performance and strength of character so far unseen from the two-time world champions in Russia.
“It’s disturbing to see Argentina sitting rock bottom of the group with just one match to go. The task is difficult not only because a win is necessary. We also have to depend on the outcome of the Croatia-Iceland match. However, being a believer, I refuse to give up hope in La Albiceleste,” Maradona wrote in his column for Times of India on Tuesday.
“The situation reminds me of 1982 and 1990. Defending champions both times, we had started with defeats. We won the remaining two matches on the first occasion before crashing out in the second round. In the second, when I was captain, we reached the final. Leaving aside the difference in where we finished eventually, I look at the fact that despite landing in a spot twice, we came out fighting and crossed the group hurdle. It gives me belief this can be done.”
Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 on Friday to revive their hopes of advancing into the knockout stages of the World Cup in Russia, as striker Ahmed Musa dramatically marked his return to the team with two fine second-half goals. The result left both sides, and struggling Argentina, still in the hunt to go through from Group D along with already-qualified Croatia.
“Nigeria are a dangerous opponent. We have played them several times at the World Cup, including in 2014, and won every time. That gives us a psychological edge. They have three points and even a draw can take them through if Iceland fail to beat Croatia. Nigeria will be charged up. Our boys have to show desire and play the match of their lives,” the scorer of 34 international goals for Argentina, mentioned.
For all his heroics with Barcelona at club level, Messi is still often compared unfavourably in his homeland for his inability to recreate Maradona’s success for the national team. Messi led Argentina to the World Cup final four years ago and consecutive Copa America finals in the following two years, but all three ended in defeat.
“Argentina need a big win against Nigeria. This requires a complete turnaround and the players must remember this is a last chance to show the world their worth. I trust them to do so. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has to plan accordingly and assign specific roles to each player. His selection has to be perfect and although Leo Messi will again be expected to produce what only he can, they must play as a team instead of looking at one man to take them through,” added Maradona.
“We dominated the first match, but failed to break Iceland’s defence. Croatia dominated us in the second after goalkeeper Willy Caballero gifted them the opening goal. Sure, we missed the experience of the injured Sergio Romero, but in football anything can happen. Nobody plays to lose and it was an accident. Instead of looking back, we must focus on the chance we have.”
So far in Russia, Messi has been held scoreless. He missed a penalty among 11 unsuccessful shots on goal in a 1-1 draw with Iceland before failing to make any meaningful impact in an error-strewn Argentine display against Croatia. A month on from Messi’s rescue mission in Ecuador, he sat out a friendly as Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 back in November to highlight how reliant even a squad containing Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala remain on their number 10.
“The world is looking at Messi. It’s natural that a player like him will always be in focus. But I repeat this is not one man’s job. In football, you win and lose together. They all have to take responsibility and play for each other. If you want it badly, you can do it. Come on Argentina! Rise to the occasion,” he said.
“There are issues to address. Argentina played 4-2-3-1 in the first match and 3-4-3 in the second. In both formations the midfield failed to put up resistance in front of the backline. Javier Mascherano was brilliant in this position four years ago, but doesn’t seem to be able to shoulder that kind of load anymore. This has increased pressure on the defence and Sampaoli has to see what can be done.
“The Africans are fast and powerful. Argentina must not give them space to play their free-flowing game. A lot of dirty job has to be done in the middle to prevent them for building play. Our players have to stay close to each other to reduce the gaps. An early goal is important to keep them under pressure.”