THT looks back at what was a frenzied final round of group stage fixtures in Group D of the 2018 FIFA World Cup as Argentina joined Croatia in the Last 16.
Jorge Sampaoli had made a number of changes to his Argentina side ahead of their match against Nigeria, with Gonzalo Higuain and Ever Banega the notable starters, while there weren’t any surprises in store from Nigeria. Meanwhile, as promised Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic rang in the changes against Iceland.
With a lot riding on both the matches, the starts in Rostov-on-Don and Saint Petersburg were understandably nervy. As the events unfolded over a thousand miles apart, The Hard Tackle looks at all the major happenings and how they had a bearing on the final Group D standings over the course of the two frantic, keenly contested matches.
14th Minute: Argentina Draw First Blood
Call upon him for inspiration and the Messi-ah delivers. Ever Banega finds Lionel Messi with a lovely lofted pass, which the Argentina captain controls beautifully before slamming the shot into the net. In the other game, the biggest piece of action has been Birkir Bjarnason getting a bloody nose by Marko Pjaca as Iceland struggle to create the required chances.
Messi’s first goal of the tournament is, of course, quite crucial as Argentina now lead the race for second spot. As things stand, La Albiceleste are second with 4 points, with Nigeria and Iceland trailing them with 3 and 2 points, respectively. The momentum is with Argentina who are pressing well off the ball, while Nigeria look rattled and bereft of ideas.
34th Minute: Argentina Almost Smell Glory
Argentina are awarded a free-kick right at the edge of the Nigeria box after Angel Di Maria was fouled by Leon Balogun. Messi is the man to take the penalty, but is denied by a fantastic fingertip save by Francis Uzoho. Meanwhile, in Rostov-on-Don, Iceland are in the ascendancy and are starting to carve out the chances, although the goal still deserts them.
The standings remain unchanged, but the goal would have done wonders to Argentina’s chances of qualifying, as it would have put some daylight between them and Nigeria, especially with the game between Croatia and Iceland still goalless.
Half-Time: Advantage Argentina
Iceland have been asking some question from Croatia, and look like they’re getting closer to that all-important goal. Alfred Finnbogason first came close with a strike from 18 yards that just flew past the upright, before Aron Gunnarsson forced Lovre Kalinic into an acrobatic save with a curling effort from a similar distance.
But, unless they get that goal, the Nordic outfit will remain rooted to the bottom. In the other game, Argentina are firmly in control, with Nigeria only creating one or two half chances, at best. Another goal will put Messi & co. at ease.This is so delicately poised. If Iceland score the next goal, the scenario gets spiced up nicely as Argentina will need another goal.
50th Minute: Nigeria Right Back In It/Croatia Take the Lead As Well
Nigeria win a penalty after Javier Mascherano is adjudged to have handled the ball. Victor Moses took the responsibility to net the equaliser, and after a lot of unnecessary delay converts from the spot. Cool as you like. Three minutes later, the game in Rostov Arena sees Croatia take the lead through Milan Badelj, who volleyed home from 10 yards out.
It’s a deadly blow for Iceland as they need at least two goals in the last 40 minutes to have a chance. But, Nigeria are in the driver’s seat, snatching second spot back from Argentina. As things stand, it’s a straight shootout between Nigeria and Argentina. The Super Eagles have the advantage. An Iceland goal will set this up nicely once again, but they remain bottom for now.
75th Minute: Iceland Have Hope
Iceland were growing back into the game really well and got their due when Dejan Lovren, who had only just come on for Pjaca, handled the ball. It’s a clear penalty and one that is converted calmly by Gylfi Sigurdsson to give his side a glimmer of hope, although the Vikings still need two more goals to get back to second.
Meanwhile, in Saint Petersburg, Argentina are running out of ideas just like the blood out of Javier Mascherano’s left cheek, as Nigeria take control and have a penalty shout turned down. The Super Eagles remain second with 4 points while Argentina are rock bottom. The last 15 minutes have been set up nicely.
90th Minute: Three Minutes of Frenzy
In the 87th minute, Argentina roar back into the picture, and how. Gabriel Mercado’s inviting cross from the right flank finds Marcos Rojo of all people, who produces a volleyed finish that would do any striker proud. Diego Maradona in the crowd cannot control himself, nor can the fans, or the players. Nigerial look dead and buried now.
Three minutes later, Iceland are dead and buried for good as Ivan Perisic scores for Russia. There’s no way Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men are coming back from this. Argentina can almost breathe easy now. They just have to see out injury time, with the wind knocked out of Nigeria.
Full-Time: Argentina Are Through!
They’ve done it. Somehow, someway, Argentina have produced a great escape as the chaotic proceedings come to an end. It’s heartbreak for Nigeria and Iceland, while La Albiceleste are only crying tears of joy. As the dust settles, Argentina are through, and they now have a tasty Round of 16 tie against France.
Meanwhile, Croatia, who haven’t been mentioned a lot, clinch top spot by winning three in a row for the very first time at the World Cup. They will now face Denmark in the next round. As for Nigeria and Iceland, their hearts may have been broken, but they can hold their heads up high after admirable campaigns.