World Cup 2018: Banega as important as ever for Argentina
A quarter of an hour had been played in St. Petersburg. Ever Banega had the ball in the heart of the Argentine midfield. With the Nigerians closing him down quickly, the Sevilla playmaker looked up, and he immediately knew what to do next.
Lionel Messi was darting into the Nigerian penalty area, his run almost begging the ball to be played to him. Before the opposition could engulf him in a sea of green, Banega lifted the ball over the Nigerian midfield and defence and dropped it on a sixpence for Messi.
The diminutive magician controlled it with the outside of this left thigh, before taking a touch with his magical left foot and slamming it beyond a helpless Francis Uzoho in the Nigerian goal with his weaker right foot.
The blue and white torchpaper had been lit: Messi had finally scored, but more importantly, Argentina had taken the lead. The Argentine dugout sprang to their feet in relief more than joy as Messi sprinted towards the corner flag, arms outstretched, in what was a sight the world was yearning for.
It was a brilliant finish and Messi will rightly take the plaudits for it, but the move was initiated and orchestrated by the ever-underrated Banega.
Argentina had laboured to a 1-1 draw against minnows Iceland in their World Cup opener, before spectacularly collapsing 0-3 against a rampant Croatia. Head coach Jorge Sampaoli was panned in the press for his tactics, and his insistence on starting with the ineffective Maxi Meza and Enzo Perez beggared belief, especially with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, and Banega - who ran rings around Manchester United in their Champions League encounter - rotting on the bench.
Nothing less than victory would do against Nigeria in their final group game. With a place in the knockout rounds at stake, Sampaoli knew there was no room for error. He switched from his favoured back three to the tried and tested 4-4-2, and started with stalwart Gonzalo Higuain upfront.
Willy Caballero was dropped after his calamitous error gifted Croatia their opening goal, with Franco Armani replacing him for his debut. The most important change, however, was in midfield, where Banega finally started a match after being inexplicably overlooked in the opening two matches. It took the midfielder just fifteen minutes to make a difference.
The unassuming playmaker was at it again minutes later, as his inch-perfect pass played in the recalled Angel Di Maria, he was scythed down when he was through on goal. From the resultant free kick, Messi struck the woodwork. A dominant first-half
display finished with the South Americans unlucky to be just one goal ahead of their African counterparts. While Messi grabbed the headlines, Banega went about his creative role with remarkable efficacy, making merry in the shadows of his more illustrious compatriot.
Argentina's over-reliance on Messi is no secret, and other teams have figured this out quite easily. Hence, whenever he has the ball, Messi inevitably runs into a wall of players, with nowhere to go. The entire creative burden is on him, which is why marking him tightly often results in Argentina looking bereft of ideas.
However, with Banega in the team, Argentina have someone to pull the strings from a deeper position, which allows Messi to be on the receiving end of passes like the one that led to the opener - somewhat like at Barcelona, where Ivan Rakitic, and, till recently, Andres Iniesta created chances at will, bringing out the best of Messi.
Slotting in alongside workhorse Javier Mascherano, Banega and the former Barcelona and Liverpool medio effectively bossed the middle of the park, despite being outnumbered by the well organized Nigerians, who equalized through a second-half penalty.
With Argentina staring at elimination with the scores tied at 1-1, they needed what they lacked so sorely in the previous games: the ability to fight and rouse themselves when the chips are down.
Nobody characterized the Albiceleste's tenacity and drive more than Banega, who was constantly roaming around the pitch looking for openings, and Mascherano, who continued playing even with blood streaming down his face.
Their attempts to reestablish the Argentine lead were being stifled by Nigeria, who reduced the playing area and suffocated their opposition's midfielders. Argentina were not being helped by Gonzalo Higuain's lack of mobility in the final third, which allowed Nigeria to stifle the likes of Banega and Messi by crowding them out.
It was with Sergio Aguero's introduction that the Argentines really looked menacing, with the Manchester City making the runs which finally opened up spaces from where Banega and Cristian Pavon could operate, and it was the latter who played in Gabriel Mercado, whose menacing cross with finished with aplomb by Marcos Rojo, to send the Latin Americans through.
Jorge Sampaoli had declared before the game that the 2014 runners-up were five victories away from getting their hands on the World Cup trophy, and with the first victory achieved, he can now breathe a little easy.
However, with France awaiting in the round of sixteen, Argentina know that it will only get tougher from hereon. But with Banega finally getting game time, the likes of Messi and Aguero now know that they won't have to look up to the high heavens for inspiration, with their midfield at long last, as good as Ever.