COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
When Argentina and Croatia took to the pitch at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, the need was greater for the Albiceleste who absolutely knew nothing but a win will do following their opening draw with Iceland, while the reward was greater for the Croats who knew a victory would see them secure passage into the Round of 16.
Both sides hadn’t faced in a competitive game since the 1998 competition in France – a game in which the South Americans won 1-0 – although that was nothing but a dead rubber following the pair’s progression from the group. This, though, was anything but a meaningless fixture for both sides. The Nigeria side would have kept a keen eye on events as well, knowing full well a win for Zlatko Dalic's team was the result they wanted if they were to have any chance of going through.
In the game itself, a scrappy affair ensued as both sides struggled to get going. Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero cut isolated figures in attack as the midfielders struggled to find them between the lines. To put the pair’s half in perspective; they’d managed 20 and seven touches respectively, which showed how ineffective they were!
Chances were few and far between too, although both sides missed sitters. Argentina first with Enzo Perez who failed to score with the goal gaping and then Mario Mandzukic couldn't direct a header on target when it seemed so easy to score. Willy Caballero had saved from Ivan Perisic early on while Marcos Acuna hit the bar with what was a wayward cross. There was also time for Ante Rebic to leave a silly tackle on Eduardo Salvio which could have been a red on another day.
It ended goalless at half-time and the Super Eagles would definitely have felt things were going according to plan. It was then to get better a few minutes after the restart for Nigerians who would surely have been celebrating once a huge error from Caballero allowed Rebic volley in from close range. At that point, Zlatko Dalic’s side were on six points, Argentina and Iceland had a sole point, while the Super Eagles were at the foot of the table with none.
Sampaoli responded by sending Gonzalo Higuain and Dybala on 15 minutes apart for the ineffectual Aguero and Perez respectively. However, the tempo of the South Americans remained slow and they never actually seemed like they’d score. Sampaoli was feeling the heat... but Rohr and a plethora of Nigerians would definitely have been getting excited.
It was then to get worse for Sampaoli's side in the 80th minute when Luka Modric curled a wonderful effort past Caballero to put the Europeans 2-0 up and consequently into the Round of 16. There was even time for Ivan Rakitic to hit the bar with a hammer of a free-kick late on before he then hit the target from close range in stoppage time as it ended 3-0 to the Croats.
The events at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, therefore, makes Group D finely poised. Croatia may be through but it’s certainly set to get interesting as Iceland, Argentina and Nigeria slug it out for the other qualification slot.
The South Americans need Rohr’s side to get a result against Our Boys as a defeat for the three-time African champions will most likely prove fatal, particularly considering that Heimir Hallgrimsson’s side face Dalic’s charges in the final group game. Their fate is now definitely out of their hands.
However, for the Super Eagles, a win against Iceland puts them in the driving seat to progress as it’ll see them move to second before the final group games. They will then need to pick up a result against a poor Argentina side and hope Croatia do the same against a dogged Iceland. The Nothern European nation won’t be going away so easily, though, and they will also fancy their chances of making it through over the so-far underperforming duo.
Regardless of how it pans out, this one is certainly set to please the neutral… but the Nigeria side won’t be getting so comfortable. They have one job: win against Iceland and have a chance. Whereas failure will only mean one thing… elimination!