Marcos Rojo scored a brilliant late volley to send Argentina through to the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Nigeria in St Petersburg today.
A lacklustre Argentina were on the verge of an embarrassing exit before Manchester United defender Rojo surged into the area to place Gabriel Mercado’s cross into the bottom corner.
Lionel Messi, who had scored a brilliant opener, jumped on Rojo’s back as he sprinted away in delirious celebration, joined by the entire Argentina bench in the corner.
It was a result they scarcely deserved after a poor second half showing, epitomised by the Javier Mascherano error that allowed Victor Moses to equalise with a penalty.
But once their ragged defence had held on to the final whistle, the Argentina players embraced each other in the centre of the pitch, waving to their vociferous fans, a disjointed side united for now.
They will face Group C winners France in the last 16 in Kazan on Saturday, while Group D winners Croatia, who secured top spot by beating Iceland 2-1, play Denmark.
Given Messi will be 35 during the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, victory here has at least staved off a miserable end to what could well be his last chance to win the tournament.
The Barcelona striker, whose hint of a smile during the pre-match anthems was a stark contrast to his pained expression prior to the 3-0 defeat by Croatia, produced a superb first-half performance.
His opening goal displayed all his talent and composure. With Ever Banega looking to go over the top from deep, Messi cut sharply right and surged in behind the defence, with the Sevilla midfielder picking him out with a terrific pass.
Messi’s first touch to cushion the ball on his left thigh was sublime, the second off his left boot to draw it away from Kenneth Omeruo exquisite, the finish into the far corner with his right emphatic.
Elsewhere he was efficient, threatening to create openings with every quick touch, and could have had a second but for Nigeria keeper Francis Uzoho’s tremendous save to tip a free-kick onto the post.
With Argentina’s players reportedly at odds with boss Jorge Sampaoli, it was perhaps telling that Messi delivered a second team-talk to his side in the tunnel just before coming out for the second half.
His words failed to inspire them, with Messi increasingly isolated, but the little master had at least given his team-mates the foundation to salvage their World Cup hopes.