Argentina head into Tuesday’s Group D encounter with Nigeria knowing that only victory will do as they look to progress through to the last 16 of the World Cup.
Nigeria are aware that a draw in St Petersburg will eliminate the 2014 runners-up, but a share of the spoils could let in Iceland, who need to beat already-qualified Croatia.
Few people could argue that Nigeria looked poor in their opening-game defeat to Croatia and that impression continued by half time of the African nation’s match with Iceland after failing to record a shot despite 67% of possession.
However, the mood changed after the break. Nigeria came out looking like a different side, showing an increasing threat on the counter-attack and Ahmed Musa – who has flopped at Leicester City since 2016 – looking a man reborn.
Musa’s first against Iceland – a half-volley into the roof of the net – was purely instinctive, but his second – a solo run which ended with him rounding the goalkeeper and tapping home – finally gave Leicester the justification for paying £16.6m for the attacker’s signature.
The 25-year-old has no future at the King Power Stadium but that matters little right now with Musa acting as the spearhead of the Super Eagles’ challenge in Russia and on current form, they will feel that they can record a second win over Argentina in little over half a year.
Friday’s triumph over Iceland also ended a five-match winless streak – games which only saw Nigeria net twice – and there are signs that the shackles have been lifted and the confidence is there to inflict more misery on Argentina.
On the negative side, however, Nigeria continue to start slowly and although they avoided conceding against Iceland, it marked the fourth successive fixture where they have failed to make any impact before the break.
That cannot happen against Argentina. Lionel Messi and co are hurting after the embarrassment of their previous defeat and it is up to Nigeria to press from the opening whistle in order to leave their more illustrious opponents with no time to regain their confidence.
Nigeria have lost all four of their World Cup matches with Argentina but they have shown in the past that they are not overawed by going toe-to-toe with their star-studded squad and if Nigeria reproduce their second-half showing against Iceland, it could prove to be the difference between qualification and elimination.
This World Cup was supposed to be the stage for Argentina to try to overcome the disappointment of losing the final to Germany in 2014 but so far, the current tournament is proving to be far more frustrating for the two-time winners.
All looked on track when Sergio Aguero gave his team an early lead against Iceland at the start of the campaign but since then, it has been near calamitous with Messi missing important penalties and looking ineffective, while the backline is playing with little coordination and showing no confidence.
Goalkeeper Willy Caballero was at fault for the first two goals which Argentina conceded at this tournament, but that does not excuse the manner of the team’s performance in the final quarter against Croatia, with a number of players appearing to concede defeat without much of a fight.
That is considered unacceptable back home and there have been calls for Jorge Sampaoli to step down from his position before the final group game, but the 58-year-old is being given one more chance to redeem himself at a time when the stakes are high.
In 56 years, only once – in 2002 – have Argentina failed to progress past the first round at the World Cup but one of the giants of international football – who arguably possess the best lineup of forward players in the tournament – will be eliminated if they cannot find a way to overcome Nigeria.
The best-case scenario for Argentina is a last-16 clash with the Group C winners – which could be France – while hosts Russia, Uruguay, Spain or Portugal would be waiting in the quarter-finals should they be able negotiate the next two fixtures.
However, maybe it would prove to be a blessing in disguise. Messi, Aguero – even Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala – have looked off the pace but maybe the rugged defences of Iceland and Croatia did not suit their game.
That is merely clutching at straws but until Argentina no longer participate in this tournament, they remain a threat and with a point to prove, Messi could just be at his most dangerous.
Sampaoli must decide whether to hand a third start to Aguero, who was withdrawn early in the second half against Croatia.
With a win required, the possibility remains of one of Aguero and Higuain starting alongside Dybala and Messi, with Maximiliano Meza potentially being dropped to the bench.
Marcos Rojo is in contention for a recall into the defence – while Federico Fazio could also be involved – while Angel Di Maria will also expect to start after failing to begin the Croatia game.
A doubt remains over whether Caballero will be allowed to continue in goal, although Nahuel Guzman is relatively unproven on the international stage and Franco Armani is yet to win his first cap.
As for Nigeria, captain John Obi Mikel should be fit to take his place in the team, despite suffering an injury to his arm during the closing stages against Iceland.
Tyronne Ebuehi is likely to be recalled in place of Brian Idowu at full-back after being introduced at half time in the previous fixture.
Nigeria possible starting lineup:
Uzoho; Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Ebuehi; Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Etudo, Musa; Iheanacho
Argentina possible starting lineup:
Caballero; Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Mascherano, Perez; Di Maria, Messi, Dybala; Higuain
Tuesday’s fixture will represent the ninth contest between the two sides, with Argentina registering five wins in comparison to two victories for Nigeria.
Nigeria and Argentina are no strangers to each other at a World Cup with the upcoming match their fifth clash on the biggest stage since they first locked horns in 1994.
The most recent showdown came in November as Nigeria overturned a two-goal deficit to run out 4-2 victors in a friendly held in Krasnodar.