NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Argentina may have squeezed through to the knockout stages of the World Cup in nail-biting fashion on Tuesday but again there was little to suggest the two-time winners can go deep in the tournament.
Not even a lively performance from Lionel Messi – at least in the first half in St Petersburg – as they edged out Nigeria 2-1 to finish second in Group D will give their large travelling band of supporters in Russia much in the way of confidence.
Instead, the army of light blue-clad fans at the Saint Petersburg Stadium, where Argentines impressively dominated the stands, are likely to be feeling immense relief rather than unbridled optimism.
Changes made to the team for the last group game were designed to play to Messi’s strengths, with Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain restored to the starting line-up to feature alongside him in a preferred 4-3-3 formation that sought to banish the ghosts of a miserable showing in their previous Group D game – a horror 3-0 loss to Croatia in Nizhny Novgorod last week where Argentina looked tactically impoverised and Messi was anonymous.
Under-fire coach Jorge Sampaoli also included Ever Banega to add some midfield muscle and spray the passes that Messi could run onto and it did not take long to do the trick.
But while Messi’s 14th minute goal came exactly as planned – and set Argentina on course for the victory they needed to progress – their performance dipped markedly after the break and they then looked to contrive to throw it all away.
The folly of the ageing Javier Mascherano, who had consistently been giving away possession before he conceded a needless penalty to allow Nigeria an equaliser, could have been a death knell.
There might have been a second spot kick awarded to the Africans, for a handball committed by Marcos Rojo as he rose to head clear a ball that then struck his arm, but after consulting the Video Assistant Referee system Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir decided against it.
Rojo then struck a superb late winner to snatch victory and book a meeting with Group C winners France in Kazan on Saturday in the first game of the second phase of the tournament.
It leaves little time for Argentina to shake off the impression that there is a large dollop of desperation in their play, and that if they are to again go all the way to the final, as they did four years ago, it is going to take individual brilliance rather than a collective effort to get them there.
Editing by Angus MacSwan