Cometh the hour, cometh the man … Marcos Rojo? The Manchester United centre-back pulled out an exquisite finish that no one knew he had to save Argentina’s skins and reach the round of 16.
Lionel Messi came alive in the first half and fired La Albiceleste into the lead but Nigeria levelled from the spot through Victor Moses and the indiscretions of Javier Mascherano.
Check out our Argentina ratings on a dramatic night:
Franco Armani – A replacement for the hapless Caballero, could only watch on in misery as Moses slotted the penalty. Stood firm to keep out Ighalo near the end. 6
Gabriel Mercado – It was already clear that he is a better defender than Salvio before his sumptuous assist for Rojo showed what he could do offensively. 7
Nicolas Otamendi – Perhaps he pretended that he was wearing a Man City shirt – much sturdier and made a game-high eight clearances. 7
Marcos Rojo – His needless karate kick on Iheanacho could, and should, have brought a spot-kick but oh my, what a finish. 7
Nicolas Tagliafico – Has been a mild bright spot for Argentina, dimmed somewhat here. Withdrawn for Aguero with firepower needed. 6
Enzo Perez – Was successful with 97 per cent of his passes but the problem was that not one of them was incisive. Off for Pavon on the hour. 5
Javier Mascherano – Shambolic display. Gift-wrapped a chance to Iheanacho and should have known better to lay hands on Balogun for the penalty. 3
Ever Banega – Classiest player on the park. Two brilliant through balls in the first half, including the one that Messi finished with aplomb. Why was this his first start of the World Cup? 8
Angel Di Maria – Recalled with Sampaoli out of options and, save for drawing one foul in a dangerous area, disappointed again. 5
Lionel Messi – Made two outrageous touches before he steered past Uzoho. Only turned up for the last quarter of the second half, though. He had to be in the spotlight for the entire 90. 7
Gonzalo Higuain – Held up the ball well early on, lacked any service from wide as Nigeria coaxed play into central areas. Shocking miss late on when his country needed him. 5
Maximiliano Meza – Came on with 20 minutes to go and made a grand total of five passes. 5
Cristian Pavon – Much like Meza, the ‘impact players’ off the bench speaks of how average Argentina are. 5
Sergio Aguero – Ineffective late on with big bodies crowding the box, same old story in this tournament. N/A
In their final group game, they face a South Korea side whose own shot at qualifying for the knockout stages are hanging by a thread.
Here are the key players who will determine the outcome of Wednesday’s fixture.
Heung-min Son vs Marco Reus
Heung-min Son hasn’t quite delivered his best yet, not showing the quality that’s made him a star in the Premier League, but there were signs in South Korea’s second game that he’s nearing top form – not least the stunning goal he scored late on. If he can build on that performance, his side will prove tough opposition for Germany.
Against Sweden, Marco Reus showed why there was so much clamour for him to be given a starting berth after Germany’s loss to Mexico. He put in a classic No10’s performance, with incisive passing and lethal movement, and picked up a goal and an assist in their win. Another performance like that should see Germany through to the Round of 16.
Hwang-hee Chan vs Timo Werner
Hwang-Hee Chan put in a decent shift against Mexico, although he will be the first to admit he’s capable of more. Still, there were signs of a growing understanding between him and Son, and glimpses of his own prodigious talent. If he can find another gear, South Korea will be a lethal force in attack.
Timo Werner was a little lucky to keep his spot in the starting XI against Sweden, and especially to emerge for the second half after his first-half display. But in that second half, he showed the form that’s made him a rising star in Europe. He’s still looking for his first World Cup goal, however. Could Wednesday be his day?
Lee Yong vs Joshua Kimmich
Lee Yong was given a torrid time by Mexico’s Hirving Lozano in South Korea’s last game, and he’s in for another against Germany’s free-flowing attackers. Julian Draxler is a handful for any defender, and with Marco Reus’ propensity to drift towards the wings whenever there’s space, the Korean right-back will have to be at his best to ensure he’s not just chasing shadows.
It’s a mark of Joshua Kimmich’s quality that he was able to call out his side’s poor performance against Mexico despite being one of the younger members of the squad. Kimmich’s own form has been slightly inconsistent at the World Cup, but he’s always a marauding presence from right-back, and he’ll look to be that again on Wednesday.
After producing a comeback of champions against Sweden, Germany are looking to build upon that result and seal qualification for the World Cup Round of 16 with a win against South Korea.
The Koreans do have an outside shot of qualifying themselves, although they enter this game on the back of two disheartening losses in their opening two group games.
Here are the talking points ahead of this vital Group F clash.
GERMANY NEED TO STAMP THEIR AUTHORITY
Germany were resilient in their come-from-behind victory against Sweden, showing the spirit of a champion side – but not the quality of one. They were still far from their free-flowing, dominant best, and indeed if it were not for a stunning last-gasp free-kick, their situation heading into this game would be far more precarious.
South Korea’s defence may be the most welcoming they’ve faced so far in Russia, which could allow them to find their feet. Not that they should be taking their opponents lightly – they’ve fallen into that trap already in this tournament, and the Koreans have the pace and quality to do damage if they become complacent again.
Hopefully their opening two games have been all they needed for a wake-up call, because another lethargic start or more vulnerability on the counter could prove fatal on Wednesday – not to mention, it would signal that they haven’t learned their lessons from their humbling loss against Mexico and narrow win over Sweden.
Germany need to produce a performance that bears all the hallmark of champions – dominant, swaggering, ruthless, the sort of side they were four years ago. That team still hasn’t shown up at this World Cup.
SOUTH KOREA LOOK TO DO JUSTICE TO THEMSELVES
It’s been a tournament of much promise but little reward for South Korea, especially for star player Heung-min Son. At least he was able to produce a stunning goal in their 2-1 loss to Mexico – a moment that far and away has been his side’s best over two games. Apart from that, they’ve toiled hard without really looking threatening, and it’s that sort of form that sees them on the brink of a World Cup exit.
They do still have an outside shot of qualifying if they win – they’ll need Sweden to lose to Mexico as well, in which case they, Germany, and Sweden will be tied on three points, with goal difference coming into play. But more than thinking about their faint hopes of reaching the next round, the Taegeuk Warriors will want to produce a performance that does justice to the quality they have.
First and foremost will be getting more good moments out of Son, who looked a different player deployed through the middle against Mexico. He provided far more cut and thrust than he had against Sweden, and the entire attack looked better as a result.
If South Korea can build on that performance and find another gear, this group could get interesting.
OZIL OR NO OZIL?
Mesut Ozil is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing players in football. There’s absolutely no doubting his immense quality, but because he can amble through games at times, he attracts criticism like few others of his pedigree.
In truth it was harsh that he was dropped against Sweden when there were players who had worse games than him in the shock loss to Mexico. Two of those players were Timo Werner and Toni Kroos, who, given the chance to the redeem themselves against Sweden, repaid manager Joachim Low‘s faith and reminded everyone of their quality. Will Ozil get the same opportunity?
That Germany won without him should not count for much. Yes, Marco Reus had a better game in the No10 role than Ozil had against Mexico, but Julian Draxler wasn’t at his best and Thomas Muller was yet again shockingly poor. If players are being dropped on merit, as Ozil was, then Low would be justified in relegating Muller to the bench and recalling Ozil.
More importantly, it’s unlikely that Germany can find their best form unless Ozil finds his. South Korea’s defence may be just the sort of opposition to bring that level out of Ozil.