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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Nigeria again stand in Argentina and Lionel Messi's way as they fight for their World Cup life

Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Aguero were among Argentine side who won gold at Olympics 10 years ago against Nigeria. Now they need to repeat the feat to have a chance of qualifying from Group D

Lionel Messi and Argentina must win against Nigeria to have any chance of reaching the last 16 at the World Cup. Juan Mabromata / AFP
Lionel Messi and Argentina must win against Nigeria to have any chance of reaching the last 16 at the World Cup. Juan Mabromata / AFP

Ten summers ago, Argentina’s best young players took on their Nigerian equivalents for one of the greatest prizes in sport.

It was the second time in four Olympic Games that the gold medal match in the men’s football competition was to be fought out between Africa’s most populous nation and the South American country that likes to imagine it cultivates talent in higher concentrations than anywhere.

Argentina were the title-holders and in a tight contest, 1-0, they retained their gold medal.

The outcome soothed a little the bad memories of 12 years earlier, when on a dramatic, gripping afternoon in Georgia, USA, Nigeria had beaten Argentina 3-2 to take gold at the Atlanta Games.

That was the true beginning of the Super Eagles-versus-the-Albiceleste franchise, the contest with so many sequels: Five meetings in World Cup group matches within six tournaments and two Olympic finals.

There are parallels between Tuesday's charged encounter and that China Olympic final a decade ago.

While none of the Nigerian silver medallists are in Russia, a large number of Argentina’s last set of Olympic men’s football champions are: Angel Di Maria, who scored the winning goal in Beijing, played in Argentina’s draw with Iceland on day three of what has been a wretched World Cup so far.

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Sergio Aguero was in that Olympic side, and has so far scored his country’s only goal at the 2018 World Cup.

Javier Mascherano, Federico Fazio, Ever Banega and Lionel Messi were in Beijing, just as they will be Saint Petersburg on Tuesday; Sergio Romero, the gold medal team’s goalkeeper would have been too, had he not suffered an injury on the eve of this World Cup.

All of which suggests that Argentina’s youth development functions smoothly and efficiently: that a large number of the best under-23s - Olympic rules allow three overage players in the football competition and the rest must be under 23 - ten years ago graduated as predicted.

It also suggests these man have accumulated so much playing time together that they should know each other’s playing styles, strengths and weaknesses, as second-nature.

That is the theory, anyway. The practice, on the evidence of this campaign has been quite the reverse. Argentina, with one point from two games so far, have lurched from insipid to chaotic.

Mascherano acknowledged that, in the 3-0 defeat to Group D leaders Croatia, “in the last half an hour the team fell apart completely. It was about more than just spirit and we know didn’t look good”.

The midfielder, a finalist at the last World Cup, along with many of those from the Beijing squad, added: “We are the vice-champions of the world and we need to show that sort of level.”

Lionel Messi and the Argentina squad have had plenty to ponder. Juan Mabromata / AFP
Lionel Messi and the Argentina squad have had plenty to ponder. Juan Mabromata / AFP

He had, he admitted, feared that Argentina’s World Cup had all but ended that night, but Iceland’s defeat to Nigeria the following day offered a lifeline: Four points might be enough to claw second place in the the group.

There has been a crisis meeting in which players signalled their unhappiness with some of head coach Jorge Sampaoli’s strategies.

Sampaoli, it should be noted, is the ninth different head coach since Argentina won their first Olympic gold in 2004; so no record of smooth continuity there for the Messi generation, the braves of Beijing.

Sampaoli has been fidgety with his tactics and personnel in Russia and will be again when he names his XI this evening.

Against Iceland, Argentina became predictable for centring their tactics so overwhelmingly on Messi; against Croatia, Messi seemed bypassed much of time.

Di Maria has been dropped and now looks likely to be recalled; Banega has been marginal and now looks like he may be assigned a key role against Nigeria.

Aguero’s place as the preferred central striker of a list of gifted goalscorers is threatened, with Gonzalo Higuain offering his obvious credentials in a must-win game where Argentina have a goal difference deficit to make up on Iceland.

Mascherano hinted there will be several team changes, but points out there are risks in that, too.

“It’s not straightforward just to change a system,” said Mascherano, who, like Messi, is at his fourth World Cup.

“It means changing who plays. Within a tournament, with so little time between games, that's hard.”

Time, Mascherano admitted, is something several of his teammates are running out of. “We are very motivated,” he said. “This is the last chance for many of us.”

All the Boys of Beijing are over 30 now, and it aches that since then, at three Copa Americas and a World Cup, their best medals have only been silvers.