Lessons learned for Argentina ahead of France test

  • ​Win over Nigeria generated lots of talking points

  • La Albiceleste beginning to believe​

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By Diego Zandrino with Argentina

Argentina’s defeat of Nigeria took them into the last 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ and allowed them to draw some valuable conclusions ahead of Saturday’s meeting with France.

Big names stand tall Lionel Messi did more than just score a superb goal against the Nigerians. As well as also striking the post with a free-kick, he produced a vital block late on as Argentina clung on to their hard-earned lead.

“He’s the captain, the leader and the example for us to follow,” said Federico Fazio in an exclusive interview with FIFA. “It was important to see him at his best and scoring. It gives us confidence and it forces us all to be the best we can be.”

In that respect there were plenty of solid performances in key positions: Marcos Rojo and Nicolas Otamendi barely put a foot wrong at the back; Javier Mascherano brought some much-needed balance to midfield, while Ever Banega set the tempo and was a constant threat with his raking passes; and though he did not score, Gonzalo Higuain tirelessly created space for his team-mates.

All of them, in forming a spine that now also includes Franco Armani, will need to be at their very best against the French, who won their group thanks more to their individual than collective strengths.

Intensity and defensive solidity The Argentina players were quick to acknowledge their defensive flaws in their opening two games, flaws that appeared despite the team enjoying plenty of possession.

The four-man defence employed against Nigeria showed no weak spots, however, and was ably supported by debutant Armani in goal. The only nervy moments came when La Albiceleste were chasing a winner and left gaps for the speedy Nigerian forwards to exploit.

“It’s not just down to the defence; the whole team worked towards that,” added Fazio. “Even Leo [Messi] was dropping back to defend the final ball. That’s only going to make the team stronger and help it to grow.”

Defence will be a crucial aspect of the encounter with France, a team packed with creative and attacking talent. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing La Albiceleste in Kazan is to achieve the necessary level of intensity and focus and to maintain it.

Reacting to adversity In contrast to their two previous games, Argentina were able to recover from the first setback they suffered against Nigeria, going on to secure the result they needed after the Africans had equalised from the spot early in the second half.

“The penalty changed everything because all the frustration and problems came back in a match that we had under control,” said Mascherano, speaking to FIFA after the game. “We lost our heads a bit, but we never stopped fighting and that’s what got us the result in the end.”

That fighting spirit allowed the team to regain their composure, resist the temptation to launch long balls into the box, and have the coolness of mind to construct the move that led to Rojo scoring his late winner.

In the view of Giovani Lo Celso, who plays his club football in France and knows Argentina’s next opponents well, that reaction was all a question of experience, a factor that could prove vital in Kazan.

“They’ve got some quality players, but they’re not used to these situations,” said the midfielder. “A lot of my team-mates have several World Cups under their belts and we have to try and make that count.”

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 26:  Argentina pose prior to during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 26, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Jamie Squire - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)