Marcos Rojo becomes the unlikely hero as Argentina scrap into Round of 16 with late winner
Although it was Messi who opened the scoring for Argentina in the 14th minute, the 51st-minute penalty by Victor Moses had put Nigeria on the brink of the progressing to the next round
Argentina fans sing one song where they express the greatness of (Lionel) Messi and (Diego) Maradona. On Tuesday, in St Petersburg in the presence of Maradona, the little maestro named Messi became the Messiah for Argentina as La Albiceleste scraped into the Round of 16 with a 2-1 win over Nigeria.
Although it was Messi who opened the scoring for Argentina in the 14th minute, the 51st-minute penalty by Victor Moses had put Nigeria on the brink of the progressing to the next round, before Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo became the unlikely hero to volley home the winner, in the 86th-minute in an intense clash.
RECORDS TUMBLE FOR MESSI
The must-win tie for Argentina and Nigeria didn't particularly start how it should have, as both the teams were sloppy in possession and rather than retaining it, gifted it to the opposition more often.
Javier Mascherano almost paid for his sloppy pass as Kelechi Iheanacho pounced on the loose ball, but former Barcelona man did well to recover the ball before the moment, which world was waiting for, arrived.
In the 14th minute, Ever Banega played a diagonal ball over the top of Nigeria defence from the half-way line and found Lionel Messi just outside Nigeria's 18-yard box. He controlled it with chest, took another touch to control the ball and allowed the ball to run into space and with his weaker right foot fired a shot into the far corner past Francis Uzoho to give Argentina 1-0 lead.
The entire stadium erupted into joy as Messi ran towards the sidelines in his customary celebrations, looking at the heavens, with his fingers pointed towards the sky, but he was on his knees this time and the emotions on the face of the man, who turned 31 on Sunday, said how much that goal meant to him.
St Petersburg became the 100th city where Messi has scored so far for his club and country, while Messi's goal was 100th goal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. With the strike, he also became the first Argentine to score in his teens, 20's and 30's.
Buoyed by the lead and the support of fans, Argentina looked more threatening going forward, as the intensity which was lacking against Croatia could be seen in their movements.
A few minutes later after scoring the opener, Messi then found Higuain with a brilliant through ball, but Nigeria's 19-years-old keeper did well to block the incoming shot from the Juventus striker.
In the 33rd minute, once again Di Maria was put behind Nigeria defence and was brought down just outside the box by Leon Balogun. Argentina appealed for the red card, but the Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, just cautioned the defender.
Messi took the resulting free kick and tried to bend it into the far corner but was denied by a fingertip save by Uzoho, who deflected the ball on the post.
NIGERIA IN COMMAND
As early as the 47th minute in the second half, Argentina's one of the most experienced players, Mascherano, who's closing on none other than Diego Maradona's record for most number of appearances, was punished for pulling Balogun down to the ground while defending the corner.
Argentina and Mascherano pleaded for innocence claiming the defender had gone down easily, but Cakir did not change his decision to award the penalty as he confirmed his decision after a VAR review.
After much drama, Victor Moses finally stepped up to take the penalty in the 51st minute and with his short run-up put the ball into the back of the net past Franco Armani, and celebrated his 12th goal for the country with a summersault.
Once again after conceding the goal, Argentina failed to create much going forward while Nigeria searched for the final nail in the coffin to put the game beyond Jorge Sampaoli's men.
After the break, Argentina had failed to have a single shot on Nigeria's goal till the 75th-minute mark showcased how much they suffered after conceding an equaliser.
PENALTY OR NO PENALTY
At the 75-minute mark, the game took another turn, when Musa made a run darting run and tried to put the ball into the middle for half-time substitute Odin Ighalo but the ball deflected and scooped up in the air and came near the penalty spot. Centre-half Marcos Rojo went for the header and his attempted header bounced off his hand for Ighalo, who fired wide from the close range.
Nigeria appealed for the handball and a penalty, as they had a case, Portugal had conceded the penalty in a similar manner the previous day, and it looked like Nigeria would get their second penalty, referee opted not to award a penalty, citing that it was not a deliberate handball.
MISS AND HIT
Four minutes later, Higuain was fed a ball in the penalty box by substitute Maximiliano Meza but the former Napoli forward could only balloon the ball over the ball.
The reaction of Maradona was a telling one as it looked like it wasn't to be for Argentina. In the hindsight, the miss would have haunted the striker along with the memory of a firing a shot wide in the 2014 World Cup final.
In the 83rd minute, Ighalo went past Argentina backline and fired the shot at Armani from a narrow-angle, who kept the ball out, much to the relief of Argentina fans.
Argentina then found the winner in the 86th minute from the unlikeliest of the source. Centre-back Rojo, who had ventured forward got better of his marker, Moses, and made a run towards the penalty spot to meet the pinpoint cross by full-back Gabriel Mercado.
Rojo connected the ball with a perfect volley which found the bottom corner of the net past diving Uzoho to give Argentina the lead that would take them to the Round of 16.
Messi jumped on the back of the defender as Sampaoli and his men celebrated wildly, they knew they had just made it through in the nick of time.
The path ahead won't be easy for Argentina though as they next face in-form France on Saturday in Kazan Arena for the place in last eight, and once again hopes will be on their Messiah, to carry them forward.