As Marcos Rojo fired home Gabriel Mercado’s cross to seal a dramatic 86th minute winner to carry Argentina through to the knockout stages of the World Cup, there was an eruption of wild celebrations which were perhaps more derivate of relief than pure joy.
Diego Maradona led the cheerleading contingent for the South Americans which dominated the capacity crowd at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. The legendary Argentine icon alone displayed all the emotions felt by his compatriots all around the world that evening.
From the ecstasy upon Lionel Messi’s timely opener, to the utter deflation as Victor Moses struck Nigeria’s equaliser from the penalty spot, to the sheer elation at Rojo’s sweetly struck winner; it was a match which was emotionally befitting of Argentina’s overall group phase.
While the ending was sweet, as that hard earned victory sealed Jorge Sampaoli’s side’s place in the last 16 of the tournament, the turbulent nature of the match and the tumultuous outburst of emotion from the devoted Argentinians epitomised the disturbing uncertainties which currently permeate this Argentina side.
The two-time World Cup winners now head into a last 16 clash with Group C winners France, having finished as runners up to Croatia in Group D.
The euphoria at qualifying, in spite of what seemed destined to be the darkest of Argentine days at a World Cup, as well as the jubilation in the nature of victory over Nigeria, should carry Sampaoli’s side into Saturday’s game on a high.
However, these pick-me-ups are still not enough to truly rescind the turbulence of what came before Tuesday’s match in St Petersburg; nor do they rectify the fundamental issues which have destabilised Sampaoli’s camp thus far. They merely mask the problems and paper over the cracks.
The unsettled state of this Argentina setup was laid bare in the opening game. Lionel Messi’s penalty miss in the 1-1 draw with Iceland on matchday one in Group D sparked the fire, and the calamitous 3-0 defeat to Croatia which followed seemingly engulfed the house around the South Americans.
To follow up the doom and gloom with a determined win over Nigeria to squeeze through showed spirit and strong will among the Argentine ranks. But it does not eradicate the underlying complications and flaws which could still bring the troubled giant to its knees.
A lack of clear direction is the key issue. Jorge Sampaoli’s apparent loss of control over his side is a real concern at such a crucial time.
South American football expert Tim Vickery told Sky Sports that Sampaoli is “thoroughly lost”, and Argentina’s senior players have therefore taken charge of the team.
Vickery told Sky Sports: “There’s a huge element of player management going on there.” He believes that a major problem is “the coach Jorge Sampaoli having one idea – the high press – it’s the way he’s played throughout his career as a coach and he doesn’t have the players to do it.
“He’s been thoroughly lost jumping from idea to idea to idea, like a blind man in a shoot out."
In a group stage which pitted Sampaoli’s side against Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland, Argentina had just enough quality to see them through against sides to which Argentina were technically superior. A single point carried them through ahead of Nigeria.
Against France on Saturday, it will be all or nothing from a single match.
Messi becomes the first player to have scored a World Cup goal as a teenager, in his twenties and in his thirties.— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) June 26, 2018
Though the individual brilliance of Messi and the Argentine firepower are enough to power the South Americans past any side on their day, this level of competition also requires strategy, intuition, pragmatism, and an uncompromising winning mentality.
As Argentina prepare to take on Didier Deschamps’ superstar-laden side, those key ingredients are in desperately short supply. The events of the group stages do not position Sampaoli’s side in any kind of ideal shape to take the next step in the competition.
While the wave of positive energy from the Nigeria victory should carry Argentina into the last 16 encounter in good spirits, it may not be enough to stand up to the demands of knockout competition against one of the highest quality sides in the tournament.
France have not exactly set the tournament alight so far themselves, considering the abundance of stars and potential at Didier Deschamps’ disposal. Two 1-0 victories and a 0-0 draw with Denmark were, however, enough to secure them top spot in Group C.
The French displayed the kind of malleable ability to get the job done, however unspectacularly, that the Argentinians would gladly adopt at this stage.
Though Argentina can match the French when it comes to star quality and potential to produce individual brilliance, it is the evolution of self-assuredness, clear direction and a winning mentality within the French ranks which are likely to decisively expose the crippling flaws which will surely be the downfall of this Argentina side.