From aspirational to beatific to snakebit to utterly lost and ever so strangely found, Argentina stumble across on the right foot of Marcus Rojo. You read that right: Rojo+right foot=deliverance.
Out with Sampaoli’s 3-4-3, in with something approaching familiarity, four in the back and Mascherano holding. The key was Banega as the orchestrator, enganche as it were, unlocking the few seams that Nigeria offered. The backline was nervy, Mascherano giving away four balls within minutes just in front, but Nigeria were toothless going forward, Musa playing besides a ghost they call Iheanacho, definitely the lesser of the tournament’s Nachos. The main thing was that Argentina looked bright, Messi looked for a moment unburdened by the leaded weight of national jersey and armband, and they were dictating the game. Di Maria was able to get into some good space, Tagliafico came barnstorming inside of him on several occasions--a lovely twist that I haven’t seen much of--and while it didn’t look like a goal would readily, you had to like the way they were tugging at the strings.
The goal was utterly gorgeous, one of the nicest of the tournament. Banega playing a beaut of a 40-yard ball, clipped at a good pace rather than lofted, to a streaking Messi, who had just a step on the long defender. The trap...the trap...utterly mesmerizing beauty, a thigh trap like i’ve never seen, then a touch with the left before the ball hit the ground. Still going full speed, one of the world’s most one-footed players strikes it true with his right, back across the oncoming keeper. It’s the kind of goal that if it beats you, you simply hold up your hands and say, “no one could stop that.” Nigeria then had to come out and Argentina looked even better, with Messi denied by Uzuho’s fingertip save at full stretch and a friendly post. Higuain was released by Messi, only to be denied by a courageous dive at his feet by the 19-year old backstop, who took a shin in the head for his troubles. Argentina might have put it out of reach in the first half, but they didn’t. And they had a central defensive 3 that made me queasy all game along (after getting a pretty good showing by the wings. Still, up 1-0, a monkey off Messi’s back, Banega bossing the pitch.
And then Mascherano. It brings me back to 2010, when I just couldn’t see the qualities that others did. A lot of misplaced passes, lots of cards--he was the source of much chaos in the Liverpool side, some good chaos, some bad chaos, but lots of it. Clearly I missed his Makalele charms, Barcelona liked him plenty (though he wasn’t always a first choice while there). In 2014 he was truly fantastic for Argentina; they never would have gotten through without him. But here, alongside the giant heart, I saw the same chaos. In two plays, he managed to go flying in between two unchallenged teammates to head a ball off one of their heads (had it rebounded into the net, that would have really summed up his performance for me), and then managed to seemingly hurl Balogan to the ground where the ref just couldn’t miss it. Part of me is tempted to think it was a beautiful acting job by the Nigerian--not that I see it that way, but maybe he’s hoodwinked us all. In any case, Mascherano was red-handed and yellow-carded, and Moses sent Nigeria level with a cool strike and back-to-his-Wigan Athletic days’ height on his trademark celebratory back flip. Two staggering moments of Mascherano chaos brought a Nigeria side devoid of attacking ideas into the match. And then the doubts began to creep in, Sampaoli perfectly playing his role, an Edward Munch-directed nightmare scene, all bulging eyeballs and pouring sweat, a kewpie doll of national torment. Nigeria once again tightened the seams.
The Pavon sub looked good right away, the only Argentinian practically to get to the line all night, but there were no runners other than Higuain, and he wasn’t exactly bursting with crackling intent. Meza came on for the increasingly ineffectual Di Maria and gave a spark, but also one of those missed touches to take it over touch that he probably wouldn’t make in 1000 training sessions. Higuain got a great chance--not a sitter as we’ve seen so many players fail to keep that ball to the back foot down on the cross, but he gets paid about as much as anyone in the world to hit that shot. Finally, on with Aguero, the two centerbacks inexplicably on in my mind. And Mascherano, pleading with ref, who somehow is blinded to the fact that he’s bleeding from two separate cuts; every physician in the world has to be wondering what the hell is going on there--and I think his blood has some narcotic quality on the analysts, who will later pronounce him man-of-the-match as if sangre was the currency of the game. Nigeria were denied, by the way, a completely obvious handball PK, to me. If you just jump into a ball that’s not kicked into you and it hits your hand--a more typical Rojo moment than the goal, surely--it’s a PK. But it wasn’t.
And just as it was all slipping away, the most unlikely of occurrences. For the first time all game, Mercado slips down the line, fed by Pavon. Moses switches off somehow, leaving Rojo--ROJO?!?!--all alone at the backpost. And Rojo, an utterly left-footed centerback whom we’ve all seen take dozens of terrifying hacks at clearances, balls going every which way, just nails the ball with his weak foot, perfectly balanced technique, and Uzoho can do nothing about it. Moses, always a king of industry in the Mourinho-sculpted way, will have this image with him forever.
Sampaoli was shot out of a cannon into the dressing room, no handshakes, hugs, even mere relief--seemingly nothing can shake his nightmare. This is still a team with a lot of problems, but they got a few things right: better keeper, 4 in the back, Banega in the middle. Based on what I saw, Pavon gives them a lot more than Perez (they desperately need some pace on the outside, and Di Maria’s a question mark. I like the spaces he opened up for Tagliafico, who had a great day, but not enough for me. Higuain over Aguero? Not for me. One wonders if Sampaoli will even be in charge by the time they play France. But the lads just drank up the celebration; it was great to see them feel loved and feel good, for the first time in a long time, about being in that jersey, in the brightest of spotlights, Maradona looming over them, all the ghosts and pitchforks put away in favor of Lord knows how many drinks to be quaffed into the night. Tonight, they are fully alive. A befuddling France can wait until later.