Argentina have already secured progress to the last 16 of the World Cup and need just a draw in their final match of the group stage against Nigeria to seal top spot, but coach Alejandro Sabella could really do with a complete performance from his side.
In their opening game against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the decision to start with a 5-3-2 formation produced a sterile first-half performance before a switch to 4-3-3 yielded more cohesion en route to a 2-1 win. Lionel Messi graced the World Cup with a brilliant individual goal in that second half and crucially did so again against Iran on Saturday. This time it came in injury time and with Argentina just minutes away from an ignominious goalless draw with, an admittedly superbly organized, Iran.
With Argentina being crowded out through the middle and the team’s two strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain having little impact, it surprisingly took Sabella until 15 minutes from the end to make changes. The absence of attacking width, which Argentina struggle to get from their full-backs, was a clear failing. The furor caused by Messi’s public backing for the 4-3-3 system to give him more support has only furthered the debate over this Argentina team, which on paper certainly has the talent to win the country’s first World Cup since 1986. On the evidence of the first two matches, however, it will require Messi to potentially eclipse the heroics of Diego Maradona in order for Argentina to go all the way.
It should be expected that Argentina’s attack will look far better against teams less focused on all-out defense. But the way in which an Iran team with only limited attacking ambition posed real problems for Argentina’s backline reinforced the impression that they will certainly give teams opportunities in this competition.
Against Nigeria, Argentina will likely encounter similarly stubborn opposition to Iran. Stephen Keshi’s side have yet to concede a goal in the competition and, while they were left frustrated by an opening goalless draw with Iran, a 1-0 win over Bosnia was crucial to their hopes of progress. Nigeria had intelligently exploited the weak spot in Bosnia’s defense early before producing admirable resistance late on to deny the attacking threat of Edin Dzeko, Vedad Ibisevic, Miralem Pjanic and co.
Without the most creative midfield, although John Mikel Obi is far more proactive for his country than he is for Chelsea, pace on the break is a key. Peter Odemwingie, who came in for his first start of the competition, and striker Emmanuel Emenike combined for the only goal against Bosnia and were both excellent. On the left flank, Ahmed Musa has yet to burst into life in Brazil but is one of the fastest players around.
After leading Nigeria to the African Cup of Nations trophy last year to lift the country out of the soccer doldrums, guiding the country to a second-round berth at the World Cup for the first time since 1998 would continue to further Keshi’s impressive resume. And he has continued to show that the team’s bigger names will not be indulged. Hero of that triumph last January, Sunday Mba was left out of the squad altogether, while Chelsea winger Victor Moses is thought to have been dropped for the match with Bosnia, despite his claims that he was carrying a knock.
It would require a win for Iran against Bosnia to see Nigeria head home, regardless of their result against Argentina. If there is a 1-0 loss for Nigeria and a 1-0 win for Iran there would even be the bizarre scenario of lots being drawn to decide who goes through in second, as both teams would be level on goal difference, goals scored and with nothing to separate them on the head-to-head.
Nigeria will clearly be looking to ensure such complexities are not involved. To do so they will have to correct their frustrating recent record against Argentina. The two countries have become familiar foes in recent World Cups, meeting three times in the last five editions, with Argentina triumphing by a single goal on each occasion. The most famous was in the United States in 1994, when the match ended with Diego Maradona being led off the pitch for a drugs test and never again returning to the international stage.
Following the trend, this could be another tightly fought contest with Argentina’s quality eventually prevailing. Keshi is skilled at closing games down and will look to shut off space for Argentina to play through. His side certainly has the pace to cause Argentina’s defense problems on the break, but if Argentina can quicken their tempo they could get through the Nigerian backline, as Bosnia would have done had it not been for an errant offside flag.
Argentina 2-1 Nigeria
Betting odds (Bovada.lv)
Argentina win: 1/2
Nigeria win: 7/1
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group F match will kick off from the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre at noon ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPN.