Similar to a parent who knows his or her child is smarter than the C’s on the report card, most soccer fans will be somewhat disappointed with the performance of the Albiceleste today. While they did score three goals they also gave up two goals and could’ve easily found themselves on the losing end in a shock result. An incredible Pablo Zabaleta block in the box in the 78th minute meant Argentina held onto a one goal lead. If he gets that wrong the result could’ve been any combination of a red card, penalty kick, or goal. It shouldn’t come down to moments like that so late in the match, not for a team with the talent of Argentina.
A Messi put-back four minutes in, got Argentina off to the start they wanted but an Ahmed Musa equalizer barely a minute later was a sign of things to come. Whereas a team like the Netherlands or France would’ve used an early goal as a platform for a four or five goal blowout win, Argentina allowed Nigeria to hit back immediately and never were able to truly assert their dominance. After the initial flurry, of activity the match settled into a state of Argentina forcing the issue a bit with passes that were a bit too ambitious or just flat out unnecessary. Nigeria meanwhile proceeded with a direct full steam ahead approach that should’ve seen them much more vulnerable to counter attacks than was the case.
As halftime approached Messi curled a right sided free kick toward the top right corner of the goal. Nigeria’s keeper was able to make a great save to force a corner. Three minutes later, with the ball in a very similar spot, Messi was given a second chance. This time shot was so well placed that the keeper couldn’t even dive for it, he could only turn and watch it settle into the net. In the first half Messi was the only true bright spot for Argentina, everyone else was simply playing “ok”.
When Ahmed Musa put in his second goal of the match just two minutes after halftime it briefly relit the fire inside the Argentine players. And sure enough three minutes after Musa’s goal Argentina scored what would turn out to be the match winner on a Marco Rojo header from a corner kick. Instead of putting themselves further in front by bagging several more goals Argentina as a unit seemed to say “that’s enough, let’s just get out of here”. From near the eightieth to around the ninetieth Nigeria continually pushed for an equalizer (and would’ve had in the 78th if not for Zabaleta’s block).
Perhaps Argentina were just coasting a bit, but from a neutral perspective a fan would like to see what a team like this is capable of. Messi and the forwards are certainly capable of moments of magic. Mascherano is capable of hiding the cracks in an otherwise suspect defense. But is that it? Can Argentina’s midfield not dictate the pace and flow of a match? Can its defense really not keep a clean sheet against anyone other than Iran (who it should be noted nearly kept a clean sheet in that match as well)? If I were a fan of La Albiceleste I’d be a bit worried about the knockout stages of this tournament.