Sampaoli gets opportunity to test Albiceleste without Messi

Argentina’s Lionel Messi. PHOTO: AFP/ALFREDO ESTRELLA

After qualifying for the World Cup by the skin of their teeth, Argentina will face a stern test against 2013 Africa Cup of Nations champions Nigeria today, reports realsport101.com.

Argentina are a relieved nation. Needing to win last month against Ecuador in the oppressive Quito humidity to avoid missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970, they found themselves behind inside the opening minute.

Thankfully for fans of the Albiceleste, though, their captain is Lionel Messi. Messi, often accused of not caring about playing for his country enough, grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck and scored a hat-trick to ensure Argentina’s safe passage to the World Cup – the whole nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Their match against Nigeria offers fans of Argentinian football a more relaxed environment in which to watch their team play. Despite the fact that Argentina has two more friendly matches scheduled in March with two additional ones yet to be arranged in January and February, Jorge Sampaoli will be treating this match against Nigeria as a serious test of his side.

It was only a late Sergio Aguero header that gave them the victory against Russia last week so the Argentine manager will be hoping that his team can deliver a more emphatic performance against the Nigerians today .

Nigeria is a country trying to drag itself out of a national recession and the ramifications are being felt in every corner of the country. The country’s footballing culture has not been spared with the result that a once-burgeoning national team has suffered in recent years, a decline culminating in a failure to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations this year – the competition they won in the tournament immediately preceding.

Nigeria come into the game off the back of a 1-1 draw with Algeria in World Cup qualifying – a game that they did not need to win, having already booked their place in Russia next summer. This will be their first game against a non-African side since they played Luxembourg in May last year.

If the scoreline looked respectable when Argentina took on Russia in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Saturday, it was mainly thanks to the heroics of Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper.

La Albiceleste looked on course for a disappointing stalemate after Akinfeev denied both Di Maria and Aguero in open play from what looked certain goalscoring efforts. After Lionel Messi had a delicate chip cleared off the line by Konstantin Rausch, it looked liked it was going to be Russia’s day.

In the end, though, Akinfeev could only parry a late strike from Sergio Aguero straight back at him, leaving the relieved Manchester City forward with a simple header into a mostly open net.

In a dead rubber game between Nigeria and Algeria in the CAF World Cup qualifying groups, it was Algeria who had the last laugh. Despite going down to a thumping strike outside the box from John Ogu in the second half, the Algerians were handed a soft penalty by Gabonese referee Eric Otogo which Yacine Brahimi converted.

Even more galling to the Nigerians was the fact that Brahimi should have been sent off 10 minutes earlier when he headbutted an opponent. The referee waved away the Nigerian protests and, in the end, may have been happy that the game carried no bearing on Nigeria’s World Cup qualifying.

Although Lionel Messi did make certain of a World Cup place when the chips were down, there are still big questions about how good the Argentinian national team are as things stand. Whilst they did make the final in the last World Cup, that team was undeniably better than the current one. It remains to be seen what Jorge Sampaoli can do in the time he has to work with them in the run-up to the summer next year.

Where Nigeria have traditionally had a strong football team, their recent economic problems have stymied their development somewhat. With a growing crop of players in the Premier League, though, it looks like a corner has been turned recently. Today’s fixture will give a good indication of how much improvement there has been in Nigerian football and will go some way towards allaying fears as the Super Eagles head into the World Cup next year.

Prediction: Argentina 2-1 Nigeria
With Argentina having spent the international break in Russia, they will be raring to go for this one. Nigeria, on the other hand, have only just finished their qualifying schedule for the World Cup, playing in Algeria last Friday. As a result, they are likely to be the more tired of the two squads. However, with Argentina going through some uncertainty in their set-up of late, don’t expect this to be a roll-over for La Albiceleste.

•Culled from realsport101.com.



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