And so Argentina survived and Lionel Messi shone, at least for 45 minutes at World Cup 2018, scoring a terrific goal and dragging his team towards qualification.
When he took his team into the dressing room at 1-0 up at the interval, they looked well on their way to the win they needed, but the second half was a very different kettle of fish indeed, the young Nigerian side taking the game to a suddenly nervy Argentina and getting back on terms with a VAR awarded penalty, Victor Moses slotting in with no problem at all.
Four minutes to go, Argentina doomed, and from out of nowhere, Marcos Rojo decides to play centre-forward, slots one in like he’s scored 30 international goals rather than three, and Argentina are through. Desperately harsh on Nigeria who have probably been better over the three games, but in the big moments, the big teams can pull games out of the fire.
That comes from years of playing in huge fixtures, from playing against the other top internationals and that is where the likes of Nigeria come up short. They need to play South America and European opponents more often than once every four years, and they have to play them in games that matter.
The romantic narrative says that Argentina will now put all their problems behind them and power to the title on a cloud of Messianic magic. The truth is a little harsher. On the three games we’ve seen, there are too many things wrong with this side for them to do that, too many players underperforming, too many who have gone to one World Cup too many. France won’t be having too many sleepless nights ahead of their last 16 tie at any rate.
Croatia topped the group with victory over Iceland, confirming the sense that they are comfortably the class act in the top half of the draw. A meeting with Denmark awaits them and you can only see one winner there.
The earlier game between France and Denmark emphasised the gulf that exists between those whose living depends on the game and those who watch it for entertainment. As the two sides played out the dreariest of 0-0 draws, barely laying a glove on one another, social media lit up with accusations that this was 1982 and the Germany-Austria stitch up all over again.
I doubt that this one had any of the more sinister overtones of 36 years ago but when you have a game where a draw suits both teams, and when the reward is a place in the next round of the World Cup, it is naive in the extreme to expect the teams to go at one another hammer and tongs and risk all.
Particularly if you get into the second half all square, professionals are going to cast a quick glance at one another, exchange nods, and agree to keep what they’ve got. Why would you do anything else? “Stuff the watching billions, we want to play in the next round of the World Cup”.
As it happened, it didn’t matter anyway for Australia busied themselves in getting well beaten by Peru. It was a nice story on which to end the Peruvians’ participation in the competition for they and their ebullient support have contributed plenty, and scoring their first World Cup goals since 1982 was due reward. For Australia, it might be time for a rethink.
A new team needs to emerge as old names leave the stage, but a new approach is as important for the negative way they’ve played in the competition is no longer excusable as the way smaller footballing nations play. They’ve been at enough World Cups now to be growing up on the international stage and showing a bit more. Time to adopt some of the aggressive, attacking style that has served their cricketers so well perhaps?