They were gone. Players reportedly calling for the manager to be sacked mid-tournament, the coach himself blaming the players and television presenters holding moments of silence to commemorate their dashed World Cup hopes.
And yet, Argentina and Lionel Messi are still alive. Just.
Ahmed Musa might not be the first player that comes to mind when reflecting on the heroes of Argentine football. He has, in fact, previously been a thorn in their side having scored both Super Eagles goals in a 3-2 defeat to the Albiceleste at the 2014 tournament.
But, after his superb control and half-volleyed finish followed by a composed effort proved enough to beat Iceland 2-0 here in Volgograd, he will be the toast of Buenos Aires tonight. Getting through to the knockout stages, though, remains firmly on Argentina’s shoulders.
Messi & Co. now know that only a win in their final Group D game against Nigeria will be enough for them to reach the last 16. Even then it might not be enough should Iceland also pick up three points and better their result against what promises to be a much-changed Croatia side.
If Nigeria’s performances thus far are anything to go by, though, then failure by Argentina to pull themselves together and beat what is not a vintage Super Eagles side would only confirm what a mess one of the great footballing nations have got themselves into.
In an opening 45 minutes that was most notable for the fact that Nigeria wore “The Kit” and Iceland’s fans did “The Clap”, it came as little surprise that the fans inside the Volgograd Arena chose to entertain themselves with a Mexican Wave after just nine minutes.
Nigeria became the first team in this year’s competition to fail to register a shot on goal during the opening 45 minutes, something that will no doubt have escaped them as they opted to hold an impromptu huddle on the pitch before heading towards the dressing room at half-time.
Whatever was said in both locations certainly worked, with Oghenekaro Etebo needing just 14 seconds of the second period to drive through the Iceland defence and test Hannes Halldorsson. Three minutes later they were ahead as Musa expertly took down Victor Moses’ searching cross before smashing his finish into the roof of the net.
It was the first bit of incisive attacking play Nigeria had shown in their 139 minutes of action in Russia, and though Iceland threatened with the odd set-piece thereafter, the African outfit were well in control by the time Musa showcased his blistering pace to round Halldorsson and double his side’s lead.
Musa – who also hit the crossbar with a curling effort between his two successful strikes – looks set to end his two-year Leicester City nightmare this summer and sign for Galatasaray, and he will likely pose the biggest threat to Argentina’s lumbering defensive unit. But otherwise this is not a Nigeria team that should strike fear into anyone, no matter how much of a shambles Argentina have become.
That said, it might need a Musa-esque performance from Messi just to make sure. He’s certainly capable. Now Argentina must hope he produces when it truly matters most.