It is do or die for Argentina and Nigeria when the two sides meet in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday. A place in the last 16 is up for grabs and after a draw with Iceland, defeat against Croatia and plenty of off-field speculation, Jorge Sampaoli is hoping to avoid being the first Argentina coach to finish a World Cup group stage without at least one victory.
Without a win in four, Argentina are currently on their longest winless run at the tournament and there has been no indication from the performances to date that they can turn things around against Nigeria.
However, despite rumours of fights and player-led coups against Sampaoli, Argentina have come out and assured supporters that they are ready to make the most of the lifeline that has been thrown to them.
“Tomorrow the World Cup begins for us, with the first of five finals. You will see the best of this team,” Sampaoli said in his final press conference.
“Tomorrow’s match will be vital. Both teams can advance. They will try to do everything to advance and this will make it more attractive.
“The defeat to Croatia was painful and it’s put us in a spot where we depend on a result but a few days have passed. I have taken responsibility for that loss. From the very next day I just started to think about a victory over Nigeria. I am focused only on the next game and convinced that the team will go out to win,” Sampaoli stressed.
Despite staying focused on Nigeria, the squad have been forced to answer other questions with Javier Mascherano categorically denying reports in the aftermath of the defeat to Croatia that he and Cristian Pavón had fought and that the players would be making all decisions going forward.
Sampaoli also refused to be drawn on such things: “As for certain situations, I can’t clarify things that are untrue and things that don’t exist.”
The frustration within the camp is clear and Sampaoli admitted that some of these people “in the virtual world make you feel like a criminal after losing a game,” but the only truth is that the coach met with the squad to discuss matters and work together on a fresh strategy moving forward.
That strategy will almost certainly see Argentina revert to a far more familiar looking 4-3-3 and the end of Sampaoli back-three, which was thought to be one of the points of contention for the squad after Croatia.
Gonzalo Higuaín is in line to replace Sergio Agüero in attack with Angel Di María regaining his place on the left; Ever Banega will start in midfield to finally add a little more creativity and Enzo Pérez should continue despite a slight injury doubt.
Marcos Rojo comes back in as Argentina revert to a back four once again and finally in goal, Franco Armani gets his opportunity following Willy Caballero’s howler against Croatia.
Armani was certainly the popular choice to be number one after Sergio Romero’s injury ruled him out and the River Plate goalkeeper will now make his international debut in one of the biggest matches in recent history.
“The team is very good, we have this opportunity and we are all thinking that we can achieve qualification,” Armani stated in the press conference.
The World Cup debutant, following in the footsteps of the great Ubaldo Fillol in 1974 threw his support behind Caballero in light of his error and while admitting it could happen to anyone, Argentina can’t afford any more slip-ups.
If Argentina beat Nigeria, providing Iceland don’t beat Croatia and end up with a superior goal difference, La Albiceleste will be through; while for Nigeria, who defeated Iceland, a draw could be enough if Iceland fail to win.
Nigeria certainly have the tools to hurt Argentina as they did when the sides met in a friendly in Nigeria, where the Super Eagles came from behind to secure a 4-2 win.
Ahmed Musa, who scored twice when the sides met four years ago, has the pace to trouble Argentina’s slow defence on the counter and if Nigeria can keep Lionel Messi quiet, the chances of victory are high.
Iceland managed to swarm Messi when he had the ball, Croatia ensured the number ten barely touched it and if Nigeria can do the same, many speculate whether if could be Messi’s last World Cup.
“We love this great player, Messi, everybody loves him. The question is not if it is the last World Cup for him or not, the question is for us to be qualified,” coach Gernot Rohr said.
“We are not here to watch him play. We are here to make a result, we are professionals. We are here to defend the colours of Nigeria and we know in football there is no mercy, no pity, everybody wants to win and we cannot make any gifts even if we like very much this player.”
Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel fractured his hand in the win over Iceland and is set to start provided his cast is cleared by match officials.
Possible Nigeria XI: Francis Uzoho; Kenneth Omeruo, William Ekong, Leon Balogun; Tyronne Ebuehi, Wilfred Ndidi, John Obi Mikel, Oghenekaro Etebo, Victor Moses; Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa
Argentina and Nigeria have met eight times, four at the World Cup, where Argentina have won on each occasion.
Group stage victories in 1994, 2002, 2010 and most recently in 2014 when Lionel Messi struck twice have given Argentina dominance but Nigeria will be more confident than ever.
In 2014 both teams had secured progression, but on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg the World Cup dream will be over for one of them.