COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Ahmed Musa had singlehandedly kept Nigeria in the World Cup with his brace in a 2-0 win over Iceland, but to stay in the competition, they needed to rewrite history by not losing to Argentina. The precedent, though, showed they stood no chance: 2-1 in 1994, 1-0 in 2002, 1-0 in 2010 and 3-2 in Brazil four years ago… all defeats!
On four occasions at the grand showpiece the Super Eagles had failed to get the better of the Albiceleste, so what made them so confident things would pan out differently this time? Maybe because on this occasion the South Americans were bruised, battered and most importantly, in disarray.
Jorge Sampaoli’s dressing room had supposedly descended into chaos in the wake of a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Croatia with the players rumoured to have overthrown their beleaguered boss.
Contrast that with a Nigeria side that’d bounced back from a disappointing loss to Zlatko Dalic’s side and it was perhaps evident why the West Africans fancied their chances.
Gernot Rohr elected to go with the same side that picked up an impressive win over Our Boys: a classic case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
Jorge Sampaoli – or the players, depending on whose story you believe – on the other hand, made five changes to the side that fell to a humiliating 3-0 defeat to the Vatreni, with Willy Caballero and Sergio Aguero notably among the five that got the chop.
A keen eye was probably being kept on proceedings in the group’s other game, with Iceland – who still had a chance of going through with a win – locking horns with group winners Croatia at Rostov Arena.
La Albiceleste were to start the brighter side, having a huge chunk of the ball in the early proceedings and they duly made it count and it was to be Lionel Messi who put them in front. Having received a well-weighted through ball from Ever Banega, he took it down expertly before firing past Francis Uzoho to score the 100th goal at the ongoing global showpiece. As it stood, the South Americans were going through at the expense of the three-time African Champions.
Rohr’s side seemed to be showing the South Americans a bit too much respect and consequently struggled to get going in the encounter. They had Uzoho to thank for keeping them in the game, with the youngster saving from Gonzalo Higuain and getting fingertips to a Messi free-kick which came back off the post.
The other game was still goalless and with only one goal separating them from Argentina at the break, all they needed was an equalizer to put them back in the driving seat.
But they would need a powerful second-half showing to break their jinx against the Albiceleste.
Rohr took off the poor Kelechi Iheanacho for Odion Ighalo to offer a bit more presence upfront. A couple of minutes after the restart, referee Cuneyt Cakir adjudged Javier Mascherano to have been overly tight to Leon Balogun and duly awarded a spot-kick, which Victor Moses coolly converted. The pendulum had swung Nigeria’s way yet again but there was still a lot of football to be played.
The South American side huffed and puffed but struggled to create anything from open play. The introduced Ighalo then missed two gilt-edged opportunities to put the West Africans ahead and you sensed it could come back to bite them in the back even though their opponents had been so-far disappointing.
And so it proved, as with five minutes of normal time left, Marcos Rojo volleyed in from a sublime Gabriel Mercado cross to send Sampaoli’s side 2-1 up and break Nigerian hearts.
The West Africans have themselves to blame for falling to a defeat as their off-kilter finishing saw them eliminated at Argentina’s expense. Rohr’s side came out stronger after the break and on the balance of play might feel they deserved more, but the South Americans kept going and hit them with a sucker punch late on.
The beaten Nigerians will head home after a competition that promised so much looking back on this game, wondering what might have been as their Argentina hoodoo persists.