The final few minutes of Argentina’s calamitous loss to Croatia felt like a funeral. They felt like the end of an era. They felt like an end for Lionel Messi. The disaster reportedly provoked an attempted mutiny. It left an entire nation depressed.
And yet heading into its final game in Group D, Argentina’s 2018 World Cup remains almost entirely in its own hands.
The Argentines got the pivotal result they needed in Group D’s other Matchday 2 game roughly 21 hours after their own debacle. Nigeria beat Iceland 2-0 on two wonderful second-half goals from Ahmed Musa.
The touch, the finish, everything about this Musa goal was SPECTACULAR. pic.twitter.com/ILhhCmiimk
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 22, 2018
Those goals, coupled with Gylfi Sigurdsson’s late penalty miss for Iceland, leave Nigeria in the driver’s seat for the Group D runner-up spot behind Croatia. But Argentina, most importantly, now knows a win over Nigeria on Tuesday will very likely take it through to the knockout rounds, even after Thursday’s heartbreak.
Argentina’s loss to Croatia put it in a hole. But plenty of teams have advanced after taking one point from their opening two games. The Argentines are still within touching distance heading into their final group game.
They’ll play Nigeria while Iceland and Croatia clash in simultaneous games on Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET. Here’s what the Group D table looks like heading into those games:
Group D table
1. Croatia — 6 (+5)
2. Nigeria — 3 (0)
3. Iceland — 1 (-2)
4. Argentina — 1 (-3)
So the scenarios for Argentina are relatively simple. It must beat Nigeria. If it does, a loss or draw for Iceland against Croatia will send the Argentines through.
If Iceland beats Croatia, Group D’s runner-up spot would be decided by tiebreakers. The first is goal differential. So Argentina’s margin of victory on Tuesday would have to be at least one goal greater than Iceland’s. If goal differential is level, the second tiebreaker is goals scored.
The third tiebreak would be discipline – yellow and red card counts. A more in-depth tiebreaker explanation can be found here.
Why Friday’s result was good for Argentina
Tuesday’s game was going to be a must-win for Argentina no matter what. Had Iceland beaten Nigeria, though, even an Argentina win over the Nigerians might not have been enough. Iceland could have clinched progression with a result against Croatia on the final day. If Iceland had gotten a point Friday, a win over Croatia would have taken it out of reach of Argentina.
Now Argentina controls its own destiny. Nigeria’s second goal and Sigurdsson’s penalty miss could prove to be massive moments. Thanks to the wayward penalty, even if Iceland beats Croatia, Argentina is one goal closer to winning those tiebreakers and advancing.
Other Group D scenarios
If Nigeria beats Argentina, it is through – likely in second place, unless Croatia loses to Iceland and the two games feature a five-goal swing.
If Nigeria ties Argentina, it is likely through – unless Iceland beats Croatia by two or more goals, in which case the aforementioned tiebreakers would come into play.
From Iceland’s perspective, a win is imperative. But it needs help. It needs an Argentina win or draw in the other Matchday 3 game. In the case of a draw, Iceland would have to score at least three goals and win by at least two. In the case of an Argentina win, it would have to hang on to its one-goal advantage over the Argentines.
Can Argentina beat Nigeria?
Argentina will fancy its chances against a Nigeria team that looked completely impotent in the first half against Iceland. It didn’t even get off a single shot. It didn’t look like scoring at all. And the Nigerians had been poor on Matchday 1 against Croatia.
It wasn’t until Musa’s first goal Friday that the game opened up. That forced Iceland to come out of its shell. And Musa again won an individual battle, beating an Icelandic defender one-on-one, dancing past the goalkeeper, and finishing:
Musa doubles Nigeria's lead with a great run down the flank and finish! pic.twitter.com/iMEhR9mENH
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 22, 2018
The goals will be emblematic of Argentina’s concern. La Albiceleste was ripped apart by Nigeria on the counter in a 4-2 friendly loss back in November. The Nigerians can play for a draw. Argentina will have to take the initiative. It will be vulnerable on the counter.
But, despite its ingrained problems, Argentina is the better team. It has the more talented players. If manager Jorge Sampaoli gets his tactics right, Argentina can absolutely win and save itself the embarrassment of an early elimination.
Can Iceland beat Croatia?
Argentina’s worry won’t merely be its own game; it’ll be Iceland’s shot at three points against Croatia. That result is more likely than you probably realize.
For one, the two teams have already played each other in recent competitive games. They were in the same World Cup qualifying group, and split their home-and-home. Iceland won the group, and demonstrated the same attacking threat then that it did intermittently on Friday against Nigeria. When it isn’t completely penned in by a vastly superior opponent, it can get out on the counter. Every set piece is dangerous. Iceland is definitely capable of beating Croatia.
And the underdogs are especially capable if Croatia rests players. Manager Zlatko Dalic said postgame Thursday that he would do just that. The Croats have all but clinched top spot in Group D, and their elder statesmen could use a reprieve.
So Tuesday afternoon will be one of drama. Anything could happen. Croatia is through. Any of the three other contenders could follow it to the knockout stages.
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More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
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• Johannsson has no regrets about choosing USMNT over Iceland
• Underappreciated Pogba emblematic of why France is dangerous