MOSCOW — Day 13 of World Cup 2018 is done, and the second night of simultaneous group finales brought another evening of memorable drama.
Argentina got the victory and help it needed to survive and advance in a thrilling 2-1 win against Nigeria, while Iceland lost to Croatia 2-1. And in Group C, France and Denmark played a dreadful 0-0 tie that allowed Denmark advance to the knockout rounds as a second-place finisher, while Australia squandered its chance to make things interesting in a 2-0 loss to Peru.
Here are my five thoughts on Day 13:
• Argentina, astonishingly, survives
Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his generation, will continue to play at World Cup 2018. But it didn’t come without high drama. Messi’s first-half goal put Argentina ahead, but a wrestling-in-the-box penalty call on Javier Mascherano (a legit penalty, but softer than many such plays that haven’t been called here) gave Nigeria a chance to equalize, which it did, though Victor Moses.
But then in the final minutes, Marcos Rojo—a center back, of all things—hit a gorgeous finish in the box to give Argentina the 2-1 victory and push it improbably into a round of 16 game against France. When it comes down to it, though, Argentina deserved to win this game. This is an imperfect team, but it was the better team in the end on Tuesday.
• Nigeria and Iceland were in it until late
How great are simultaneous group finales on nights like this? Going into the final 10 minutes, three teams—Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland—knew that if they scored late they could still advance to the knockout rounds. It was two-screen watching at its best. Ultimately, it was Argentina and Rojo that put the ball in the net.
If you’re Nigeria and Iceland, you have to look at the night as a missed opportunity. Iceland got a Croatia team that it had beaten in its UEFA qualifying group, a Croatia team that had made numerous lineup changes as it rested stars for the knockout stage, and if Iceland had won it could have advanced in place of Argentina. But it wasn’t to be, and instead we got to see Messi finally smile again.
• It’s hard to take much from France’s group stage performance for the knockout rounds
France and Denmark played the dullest game of the tournament and got a mutually beneficial 0-0 tie—the first of World Cup 2018—that benefited none of the ticket-buying public or anyone who watched on TV. Survive and advance applies to the French and Danes, and when Danish coach Age Hareide said Peru had played the best soccer of Group C, he was probably right. But just because France has yet to light up the World Cup doesn’t mean that will carry over to the knockout rounds. A new tournament starts now, and France still won the group, so it won’t be penalized for doing just what was necessary to advance.
• Peru went out on a high
Finally–finally–Peru scored its first goal of World Cup 2018—and then, after that, its second in a 2-0 win against Australia. That sent Peru’s marvelous traveling fanbase into rapture and left them feeling good about one of the defining feel-good stories of the tournament. We’ll always wonder if Peru’s World Cup might have been different if Christian Cueva had converted his first-half penalty against Denmark, not least because the Peruvians played such good soccer in all three of their games. But style points aren’t goals, and Peru waited until Tuesday to finally find the net—including one by star forward Paolo Guerrero. Thanks for the memories, Peru.
• The narrative can change quickly
Just think: Monday, Portugal had Cristiano Ronaldo fail to convert a penalty and then came thisclose to being kicked out of the tournament by Iran at the death. But Ronaldo and Portugal survived. Tuesday, Messi and Argentina stared down elimination in the face and found a way to survive. The knockout rounds are a clean slate, and how you got there does not matter one bit.
Argentina now has a chance to write a new story, and you can better believe that they shouldn't be written off against France.