It’s a now or never scenario for Argentina and Lionel Messi (Getty Images)
NEW DELHI: Held by Iceland and humiliated by Croatia, Argentina’s FIFA 2018 World Cup campaign could already have been all but over, but the 1986 winners have one final shot at salvation against Nigeria on Tuesday. Victory against the Africans, who Argentina have beaten in all four previous World Cup meetings, will secure qualification for the last 16 as long as Iceland don’t shock already-qualified Croatia.
However, despite all odds, former football captain Diego Maradona feels Argentina could defy all obstacles like they did in 1982 and 1990 and clear their path to the knockouts.
“The situation reminds me of 1982 and 1990. Defending champions both times, we had started with defeats. We won the remaining two matches on the first occasion before crashing out in the second round. In the second, when I was captain, we reached the final. Leaving aside the difference in where we finished eventually, I look at the fact that despite landing in a spot twice, we came out fighting and crossed the group hurdle. It gives me belief this can be done.”
Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 on Friday to revive their hopes of advancing into the knockout stages of the World Cup in Russia, as striker Ahmed Musa dramatically marked his return to the team with two fine second-half goals. The result left both sides, and struggling Argentina, still in the hunt to go through from Group D along with already-qualified Croatia.
“Nigeria are a dangerous opponent. We have played them several times at the World Cup, including in 2014, and won every time. That gives us a psychological edge. They have three points and even a draw can take them through if Iceland fail to beat Croatia. Nigeria will be charged up. Our boys have to show desire and play the match of their lives,” the scorer of 34 international goals for Argentina, mentioned.
For all his heroics with Barcelona at club level, Messi is still often compared unfavourably in his homeland for his inability to recreate Maradona’s success for the national team. Messi led Argentina to the World Cup final four years ago and consecutive Copa America finals in the following two years, but all three ended in defeat.
“Argentina need a big win against Nigeria. This requires a complete turnaround and the players must remember this is a last chance to show the world their worth. I trust them to do so. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has to plan accordingly and assign specific roles to each player. His selection has to be perfect and although Leo Messi will again be expected to produce what only he can, they must play as a team instead of looking at one man to take them through,” added Maradona.
“We dominated the first match, but failed to break Iceland’s defence. Croatia dominated us in the second after goalkeeper Willy Caballero gifted them the opening goal. Sure, we missed the experience of the injured Sergio Romero, but in football anything can happen. Nobody plays to lose and it was an accident. Instead of looking back, we must focus on the chance we have.”