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Messi evades Omeruo to score the opener

Nigeria’s Super Eagles downed by Messi and Argentina

27 June 2016

It was the fifth meeting between Nigeria and Argentina at the World Cup and the Super Eagles succumbed to a fifth defeat at St Petersburg in the World Cup Group D clash yesterday.  A sublime goal from Argentine talisman Lionel Messi nearly a quarter of an hour into the game and a late winner from Marcus Rojo with five minutes left, after Victor Moses had cancelled the opening goal were enough to see the South Americans through to the second round.

There was never a better time than this for Nigeria to break their Argentine World Cup hoodoo. Argentin’s 1978 World Cup-winning midfielder Ossie Ardiles had described their current team as the “worst national team in Argentine history”.  This was following their underwhelming performances in their other two Group D matches, drawing 1-1 with Iceland and losing 3-0 to Croatia.

Nigeria came into this game buzzing with confidence following a morale-boosting 2-0 victory against Iceland and needing just a point to almost guarantee safe passage to the last 16.  Argentina had to win and hope that Iceland didn’t beat Croatia in the group’s other final match.

It was a night of drama on the pitch and drama off the pitch provided by Diego Maradona, who masterminded Argentina’s first defeat of Nigeria in the 1994 World Cup.  He was kicking every ball and living every emotion, as well showing off his dance moves before the match with a Nigerian fan.

But Nigeria, as they have shown at this World Cup and the friendlies before, seemed to see the first half of each match as a training session.  It was indeed a “game of two halves” for them as they ceded the initiative to Argentina, who looked much improved from the listless team of the first couple of games.

Watch the highlights below:

Messi seemed to be in the mood to add to the two goals he scored against Nigeria in the 3-2 win at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  He also had the Sevilla midfielder Ever Banega, who seemed to be the only other Argentine on the same wavelength as the Barcelona forward.

It was Banega’s ball over the top of the Nigeria’s central defence from the halfway line that found Messi drifting behind Kenneth Omeruo, who had switched off at the crucial moment.  What Messi did next, was what very few else could do.  He cushioned the ball with his thigh, controlled it with his left, shifting it away from Omeruo and before the Nigerian centre-back could recover, Messi arrowed home a right-footed drive beyond Francis Uzoho in the Nigerian goal.  The only surprise was that he struck the ball so decisively with his weaker right foot.  It was his first goal in the tournament and a peculiar kind of Messi for Nigeria, who just didn’t need to allow the “Albiceleste” to score first.

That goal filled the South Americans with confidence as Messi started buzzing with intent.  He found Gonzalo Higuain after 27 minutes but the Juventus striker was typically wasteful as he shot straight at Uzoho.  The Nigerian goalie also pulled off a world class save with his fingertips from a Messi freekick after defender Leon Balogun had stopped a dangerous Argentine move by fouling Angel Di Maria.

Nigeria did little to trouble the Argentine goal before the break.  There was precious little service from midfield to make use Ahmed Musa’s pace that was used to devastating effect against Iceland.  Oghenekaro Etebo was Nigeria’s best midfielder in their three matches.  While he was full of running, he continued to display poor decision-making especially not knowing when to release the ball.

Kelechi Iheanacho, chosen instead of Odion Ighalo from the second match, did little to justify coach Gernot Rohr’s decision.  He was slow, his touch ponderous and fluffed his lines when a wayward Javier Mascherano pass put him through on goal.  His only other significant intervention was taking a kick on the head after being fouled in the box.  It was a clear penalty on both counts, but the ref chose to make the wrong call despite the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.  Iheanacho was replaced after the break by Ighalo.

Mascherano fouled Balogun as Nigeria took a corner after 48 minutes and with help from VAR, Nigeria was awarded a penalty which was coolly converted by Victor Moses.  The goal knocked Argentina off their stride and Nigeria looked capable of all three points.  A Musa run with 20 minutes left found Ighalo, who dummied for Wilfred Ndidi to shoot just over the bar from range.  Five minutes later, Ighalo showed why this correspondent said to a friend at half time that he needs five chances to convert one.  A Musa cross came to him via a double deflection off Rojo, who headed the ball onto his arm before it came to Ighalo.  The striker had all the time in the world.  He even had time to control the ball and pick his spot with the goal at his mercy.  Instead he blasted his effort wide and then screamed to the ref about Rojo’s handball. Rojo had clearly and intentionally diverted the ball with his hand, but the ref checked the VAR screen and bottled his decision.

Etebo gave the ball away again and the Argentine attack ended with Higuain doing an impression of Ighalo as he swept his shot over the bar from about 12 yards after 80 minutes.

Still, the Nigerians kept creating chances that should have killed off Argentina.  Three minutes after Higuain’s miss, Musa countered down the left and found Ighalo.  The striker shot from the left towards the far post and it was blocked by Franco Armani in goal.  Ighalo could have tried to round or chip the keeper.

Nigeria would come to rue that miss two minutes later when their defenders lost concentration and central defender Rojo drifted into their box to volley in a cross from the right with his weak right foot.  There was no coming back from this killer blow and it came from the same player that scored the winning goal when Argentina beat Nigeria 3-2 in Brazil four years ago.

The story of this World Cup would be one of disappointment for Nigeria.  It was one in which they won on the fashion stakes with their kit, but didn’t really deliver on the pitch – apart from 45 second half minutes against Iceland.  The limp display in losing 2-0 against Croatia in the opening game meant that they had a mountain to climb, going into the final game of the group needing a result against their nemesis, Argentina.

Defender William Troost-Ekong was devasted by last night’s defeat and tweeted afterwards:

But despite some acute shortages in quality in certain parts of the team, this was a Nigeria side that could have gone beyond the first round.  It was a better squad than the one that was knocked out by France in the last 16 four years ago.  Coach Rohr’s conservative and weaselly approach must bear some responsibility for this failure to proceed beyond the group stages.

While there have been improvements in defending set-pieces and goalie Uzoho has grown in this tournament, playing with one striker usually handed the initiative to opponents.  Rohr’s team selections and substitutions also seemed to handicap their efforts.  Brian Idowu, for instance, put in a solid shift at left-back.  But he had nothing to offer going forward.  With little creativity coming from the Nigerian midfield, the full-backs/wing-backs could have provided the width and a route to getting behind opposing defences.  But Rohr lacked the bravery to start the more adventurous Tyronne Ebuehi.

Nigeria may rue the missed chances, and the rotten luck of landing in such a tough group and with Argentina again.  But Rohr is in no position to complain because fortune favours the brave.  And like electricity in Nigeria, Rohr’s bravery was in chronic short supply.



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