Argentina reach World Cup knockout stage in a way that only Argentina know how

As the ball was fired high over the bar with only several minutes remaining in a must win game for Argentina, it seemed as though Gonzalo Higuaín was destined to forever fluff his lines for his nation on the big stage.

The low cross played in to him from the left was inch perfect, he was unmarked from ten yards, and yet he still could not find the back of the net.

It was arguably harder to put it that high over the bar than to score.

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From there, Argentina’s elimination seemed inevitable, and it would have come to fruition, were it not for versatile defender Marcos Rojo.

In the 86th minute, Gabriel Mercado put in a superb cross from the right which, with all of Argentina’s attacking superstars on the pitch, was met by Rojo, who expertly hit the ball on the volley – with his weaker right foot – to guide the ball in to the bottom corner past young Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.

Gonzalo Higuaín, take note.

Despite the Argentine media ridiculing their performances, and the players supposed fallout with coach Sampaoli, Argentina started this game positively and over the course of the 90 minutes, put in their best showing as a unit at this world cup.

If Sampaoli is still selecting the starting eleven, he, for once, got it right.

Franco Armani was solid in goal when called upon, Enzo Pérez provided the ideal balance between defence and attack when playing on the right hand side of a 4-4-2 and, despite his late miss, Higuaín looked lively and linked up brilliantly with Lionel Messi playing off him.

Although Messi was awarded Man of the Match, it was Éver Banega that ran the show and was indispensable in the middle of the park. The Sevilla man can be painfully inconsistent at times, but showed his obvious talent on the night.

For the entirety of the game he dictated Argentina’s midfield, took (some) of the creative burden off of Lionel Messi’s shoulders, and made what is arguably the best assist at the tournament to date.

On the ball at the halfway line, he played an impeccable pass over the top of the opposition defence in to the path of Messi.

With the ball dropping in front of him, he controlled it sublimely on his left thigh, nudged it ahead of him with a deft touch from his left boot and, after the extraordinary piece of play that had just unfolded, the finish seemed inevitable.

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At 1-0 up, Argentina were confident and began to play the way most people expected them to under Sampaoli.

Their movement was fluid, their passing was fast and creative and, minutes after the first goal, Messi took the entire Nigerian backline out of the equation with a through pass that Higuaín could not squeeze beyond Uzoho.

With all of Argentina’s attacking qualities, however, their seemed to be at least one big mistake in their defence, and it came from a man that is normally so reliable.

From a Nigerian corner, Javier Mascherano was penalised by Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır for grappling with Leon Balogun, and Chelsea’s Victor Moses slotted home the resulting penalty.

From this moment on, Argentina became Argentina again. They completely lost their shape, Sampaoli threw as many attackers on as possible, and it seemed as though they would again fail to break down the mass defence put in front of them.

Franco Armani also made a wonderful save when one on one with Odion Ighalo to keep it at 1-1.

Then, with no one looking like stepping up, it was Marcos Rojo who found himself on the end of Mercado’s hopeful ball to fire them through to the last 16.

If Argentina were presented with a choice, they would probably still choose to do things the hard way.

With France awaiting them in the last 16, people have been quick in writing off any further progression, but France have not exactly hit top from either.

As far as Sampaoli’s side are concerned, they are still in with a fighting chance and Lionel Messi’s dream of winning the world cup for Argentina lives on.

The Author

Robert Barter

18 year old lifelong football fan from Dublin, Ireland. Aspiring journalist. Twitter handle @RobertBarter16.

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