Messi and Ronaldo both found a way to advance into the knockout stage of the World Cup. Both captaining Argentina and Portugal to finish second in their group. One captain stepped up to push his team forward while the other faltered.
The reigning European champions stumbled their way to a 1-1 draw against Iran.
Portugal had possession 73 percent of the time in the match but struggled to create chances. Fernando Santos’ team plays better when they can defend deep and hit their opponent on the counterattack. In the 45th minute though, a nice back heel from midfielder Adrien Silva set up right winger Ricardo Quaresma to score a beautiful goal that was shot just outside the 18-yard box.
In the 53rd minute, Iran’s defensive midfielder Saeid Ezatolahi challenged Cristiano Ronaldo in the box. Referee Enrique Caceres went to VAR and the decision was a spot kick. Ronaldo went to extend his team’s lead but his mediocre attempt was blocked by goalie Alireza Beiranvand.
Another controversial decision with the three-time defending Champions League winner occurred in the 83th minute. While attempting to get position in front of centre-back Morteza Pouraliganji, Ronaldo’s arm hit the Al Sadd player in the face. Iran demanded that Portugal’s all-time leading scorer got a red card but VAR suggested that a yellow card should be the punishment. After the match, Cristiano’s mentor turned foe was disappointed in the decision. “Five guys sitting upstairs and they don’t see an elbow. Give me a break,” said Iran’s manager Carlos Queiroz.
VAR finally helped out the three-time AFC Asian Cup winners as they got a penalty in the 92nd minute when striker Karim Ansarifard converted the spot kick.
For the third time in as many games, Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli switched his formation before a match. This time he set up the two-time World Cup champions in a 4-4-2 against Nigeria. The 4-4-2 formation is what Barcelona used this season under Ernesto Valverde and they almost finished their La Liga season undefeated. Lionel Messi looked to have to more space to make runs in the new set-up and Ever Banega delivered a beautiful pass to Messi in the 14th minute. A brilliant touch by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner allowed him to receive the ball with his right foot and he also scored the goal with his weaker leg.
Nigeria equalized early in the second half. A penalty was given and Chelsea winger/wingback Victor Moses converted the spot kick for the Super Eagles. Afterwards, desperation started to weigh heavy on both teams as they each needed a win to advance. In the 86th minute, Manchester United left back/centre-back Marcos Rojo scored the game winner for La Albiceleste and he knew it would happen.
“I told them, I told Ever [Banega] and [Nicolas Otamendi] that I was going to score. I dedicated this to my family; they supported me in a bad time. This group of players deserves this more than anyone else. This is just the beginning,” said Rojo after the match.
Argentina’s all-time leading scorer was also ecstatic with the way the game ended.
“It was an amazing way to qualify. It took a lot from us but we didn’t deserve to go out in the first round, so we’re all very happy. We knew we were going to win, but we hadn’t expected it to be as tough as it was,” said Messi to TyC Sports.
Argentina faces France next in the round of 16 while Portugal will go up against Uruguay. By each team finishing second in their group, it makes the knockout stage tougher. But they each have an all-time great in their prime on their side, so anything is possible.