Ahmed Musa might be dazzling in the World Cup sunshine but it was his hard yards in the bleak Russian winter that set up his date with Lionel Messi.
Musa’s stunning brace sunk Iceland 2-0 last time out, reigniting his team’s designs on a place in the last-16 following their limp loss by the same scoreline against Croatia.
The 25-year-old exchanged doubles with Messi before Argentina prevailed 3-2 in the group stage at Brazil 2014 but hitting similar highs seemed unlikely this time around after a switch to then-Premier League champions Leicester City in 2016 backfired.
Told by national team boss Gernot Rohr to seek regular first-team football in time for Russia 2018, he returned to CSKA Moscow on loan at the turn of this year.
The move from figuratively being out in the cold to literally training in the snow paid dividends, with six goals in 10 Russian Premier League appearances enough to seal a place in Rohr’s plans, and prompted some football fans in Argentina to dub him ‘Lionel Musa’ in the wake of the win over Iceland.
“He has worked very hard. When he did not play at Leicester, it was a difficult situation,” said the experienced German coach, whose team will certainly progress to the knockout stages if they beat an embattled Argentina in St Petersburg on Tuesday.
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“I asked him to go to another club so he could have competition and the rhythm of the matches. He returned to Russia, so I was coming to Moscow to see him in February and at the beginning of March.
“It was minus 20 [degrees Celsius]. I saw him in training, [there was] a lot of snow and he was fighting hard to come back into the rhythm, working very hard.
“He deserved to come back in the team as a starting player. I hope the confidence he has now will help all the team to make a good result against Argentina.”
Rohr’s successful switch to 3-5-2 saw star men Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel deployed in their club positions of wing-back and defensive midfield, rather than the respective roles in attack and number 10 that have customarily been reserved for them with Nigeria.
Such willingness to put in hard yards for the collective delighted their coach.
“Moses is playing now in the position he plays for Chelsea, which is interesting for our team,” Rohr added. “We also made the same change with John Obi Mikel. They have to play now as they do in their clubs.
“They showed they can do defensive work also and sacrifice for the team and for the country.
“Each player wants to play offensively and likes it, especially when they are coming home to their country. But now they do the dirty work also. Everyone is accepting this and I think it is a plus for us.”
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