Nigeria stick with the 3-5-2 formation that worked to such great effect in the 2-0 win over Iceland. There’s no need to change something that isn’t broken.
If only the same could be said of Argentina, who have made sweeping changes to the side that collapsed against Croatia. How much of that is down to Jorge Sampaoli? Diddly squat if you believe reports in the Argentinian media claiming that the manager no longer picks the team. They’ve ditched the 3-5-2 in favour of a 4-4-2 and have made changes to the starting 11, with Franco Armani, Marcos Rojo, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain replacing Willy Caballero, Eduardo Salvio, Maximiliano Meza, Marcos Acuna and Sergio Aguero. Leo Messi joins Higuain up front. The goalkeeper, Armani, is making his first start for Argentina. It’s the last throw of the dice. Will it work?
Nigeria, who are likely to need no more than a point to finish second, believe the balance of power is finally going to swing their way. Gernot Rohr’s sprightly side were poor in their opener against Croatia, but they were resurgent in their second game against Iceland, with Ahmed Musa scoring two fine goals, and they’ll take confidence from the memory of beating Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in Krasnodar last November.
Admittedly Argentina were without Lionel Messi that day – but they’ve more or less been without Lionel Messi throughout this tournament. The world’s best player had a penalty saved against Iceland. He looked fed up during the anthems before the Croatia game and he wept after a 3-0 defeat that shone an unflattering light on Argentina’s dysfunction. Argentina need him now more than ever, even more than they needed him when he dragged them to this tournament with a hat-trick against Ecuador, but there can be no guarantees Messi has it within himself to save his country from a their first group-stage exit since 2002. These are the moments when you remember that he really is only human. And it isn’t easy to stay motivated when your goalkeeper’s Willy Caballero, your manager has some very sophisticated tattoos and your country’s talent supply has dried up because of ineptitude at the top.
Then again, some humans are a bit better at football than others. Similar obituaries were being prepared on Saturday night, when Germany were on the brink of a humiliating early exit. Toni Kroos had other ideas, though, and you wouldn’t put it past Messi to rise from his torpor here.