The ball, delightful from Ever Banega, arrived over his shoulder, on the run. Lionel Messi watched it onto his left thigh, killed it there, let it drop to his left boot, took a perfect controlling touch and switched it, right.
Kenneth Omeruo, whose job it was to in some way harness the wind at that point, knew he was in trouble. In these moments, it is as if Messi has a way of rendering opponents powerless. He shot, across goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, and the ball moved obediently into the far corner of Nigeria’s net without further instruction. A gem of a goal from a gem of a player.
So that’s what you would have been missing. That’s what would have disappeared from this World Cup had Argentina lost on Tuesday night. Sunshine. Magic. Wonder. Ultimately, it was a fabulous volley from Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo that propelled Argentina into the final 16, but this was about him. This was about our desire for one player to stay. Save Messi. That is what the neutrals desired.
Marcos Rojo celebrated his late winner with Lionel Messi on his back but the striker had carried his team for most of the game
Rojo found himself in the box and made no mistake with his finish, firing powerfully into the bottom corner
The Manchester United defender was embraced after producing a magnificent volleyed finish to put his side through
Rojo did not hesitate when the big moment fell his way and his beautifully judged effort nestled in the net
Uzoho 7; Balogun 7, Ekong 7, Omeruo 6.5 (A Iwobi 90); Moses 7, Ndidi 7, Mikel 7, Etebo 6.5, B Idowu 6.5; Iheanacho 5 (Ighalo 45, 6), Musa 7 (Simy 90).
Scorer: Moses 49.
Booked: Balogun, Mikel
Manager: Gernot Rohr 6.5.
Armani 6.5; Mercado 6, Otamendi 7, Rojo 7, Tagliafico 6 (Aguero 80, 6); Perez 5 (Pavon 61, 7), Mascherano 4.5, Banega 8; Messi 7, Higuain 6.5, Di Maria 5.5 (Meza 72. 5).
Scorers: Messi 14, Rojo 86.
Booked: Mascherano, Banega, Messi.
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli 7.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey) 7
Argentina – well, they have to take their chances with the other mortals. This is a team with an average age above 30 and some significant frailties. With France up next it may only delay their departure by days, not weeks, but for now, they and Messi remain.
The world will watch again on Saturday, to see if one man can inspire a nation once more. St Petersburg’s stadium was overwhelmed by Argentina’s travelling support, but their joy was spread wide. It would take a heart of stone not to smile at this. Messi endures.
This might have been his last World Cup appearance, without Rojo’s goal. There would have been a reckoning in Argentina after this, with speculation Messi was going to be among several senior players in an aging team to retire from international football. Yet had this goal, this performance, been his farewell, it was one that encapsulated why this prize has remained so elusive throughout his career.
In the end, it is too much for one man to drag Argentina out of their malaise. This was overwhelming, even for him. A Victor Moses penalty had taken Nigeria to second in the group and had Cuneyt Cakir, the referee, been consistent with the call given against Portugal on Monday night, Argentina would have been out.
Rojo headed the ball onto his arm, much as Cedric had done 24 hours earlier against Iran, but after consulting the VAR, Cakir ruled no penalty. It was the right call – Rojo couldn’t get out of the way and there was no intention to handle – but not a harmonious one. The same could have been said of Cedric, too; yet that was given.
Victor Moses celebrated levelling things up with an acrobatic celebration after calmly slotting his penalty home
The Chelsea man wrong-footed the goalkeeper to roll the ball in and punish Mascherano for his overly physical approach
Javier Mascherano was penalised for wrestling Leon Balogun to ground in the box as a corner was taken on the left
The former Liverpool and Barcelona man protested his innocence but the decision stood and he was given the yellow card
Argentina had started so well but as the competition ebbed away from them grew increasingly desperate and haphazard. They were on the brink, no doubt of that. And then: salvation. Cristian Pavon crossed from the right and Rojo simply met it with all he had. He could have taken a touch, could have finessed. He didn’t. He seized the moment, seized the day, seized a place in the second round for Argentina.
There were four minutes of normal time remaining. As cameras zoomed in on the crowd, the players, at the end, everybody seemed to be in tears. Angel Di Maria was sobbing. Argentina had been through an emotional wringer; and this was only the group stage.
Yet there were times in the first-half, and plenty of them, when it must have seemed unfathomable Argentina had got themselves into this state. Their supporters must have been wondering it, maybe the players, too. Argentina are ordinary defensively and Javier Mascherano’s legs have gone, but in attack, focused and firing, they can be sublime
The introduction, in particular, of Sevilla’s midfielder Banega changed this team and Argentina should have been done by half-time. As well as Messi’s goal, the little genius hit a post and played an exquisite ball through for Gonzalo Higuain that should have amounted to more.
Di Maria was also clear until cynically felled by Leon Balogun, coming to Brighton from Mainz in time for next season. Only the presence of goalkeeper Francis Uzoho stopped that sequence ending with a red card.
Argentina’s World Cup – from the ill-conceived preparation match in politically-charged Jerusalem, that had to be cancelled at short notice – to the obvious tensions around coach Jorge Sampaoli behind the scenes, has been chaotic even by their standards.
Lionel Messi broke the deadlock with a brilliant finish after Ever Banega had found him with a sublime through ball
The Argentina talisman brought the ball down and his second touch teed himself up for the shot perfectly
Messi then fired a finish across Francis Uzoho with his weaker right foot into the left corner before wheeling away in delight
Messi showed his typically razor sharp instincts and the relief seemed to pour out of him as he put his side in front
The Argentina fans packed inside Saint Petersberg Stadium responded with a cacophony of noise for their hero
It was said that the team for this last roll of the dice in Group D had been selected by the players, not the coach – although some players are more equal than others, one imagines – but they did a decent job.
Initially, this appeared a more balanced, secure Argentina side, starting in goal where Willy Caballero was jettisoned for Franco Armani, a 31-year-old from River Plate, on his international debut. His kicking was wayward but no more so than that of Cabellero, who gifted Croatia their first goal in a traumatic 3-0 defeat, and then failed to recover.
That has been Argentina’s problem at this tournament. Setbacks have had a debilitating effect. Messi missed a penalty against Iceland and it has taken him more than a week to shrug it off; Cabellero was poor for Croatia’s first goal, and then ineffectual for another two.
Big players have shirked responsibility at important times, gone quiet, gone to sleep. It took this, the very real possibility that their World Cup would be over at the group stage, for the real Argentina to show itself.
Javier Mascherano (right) and Marcos Rojo (left) were pumped up after Messi gave their side the lead 14 minutes in
Gonzalo Higuain had a brilliant chance to double the advantage but his attempted chip failed miserably in the first half
Messi also had the opportunity to double his tally with a free-kick in prime position just outside the Nigeria box
Argentina could have been three goals up by half-time had they taken their chances and caught the breaks. In the 28th minute, a perfectly-weighted through pass by Messi, found Higuain who outstripped his marker but was thwarted by teenager Uzoho in goal, the young man bravely off his line, saving at his feet and catching a painful blow, knee to head, in the process. Fortunately, he was able to carry on.
In the 32nd minute, a long ball from the back set Di Maria away until Balogun gave up chasing and took up tripping instead. Had Uzoho not been at home he might have gone, instead referee Cakir produced only a yellow card and from the resulting free-kick Messi flighted the ball over the wall and Uzoho got the merest touch to push it onto the far post.
Argentina were playing well, full of confidence, but defensive frailties and the determination of referees to at last address man-handling in the area conspired against them.
Mascherano – past his best and no longer a player Roy Hodgson considered more influential than Messi when distributing his Ballon D’Or votes – had several goes at Balogun as a corner came in, before dragging him to the floor.
Cakir pointed to the spot, the usual mimes of protests resulted, replays showed the right call had been made. Victor Moses stepped up, took two paces and hit a gentle one, only slightly to the right, deftly sending Armani the wrong way. At that point, Messi was on his way home. He has a lot to thank Rojo for; but so do we.
The strike flew agonisingly against the post after Uzoho managed to get his fingertips to the whipped effort
Ahmed Musa chases down a loose ball and Franco Armani is forced to scramble the ball clear to safety
Argentina’s late show means they will advance to the last 16 as a devastated Nigeria were dumped out of the competition
Perhaps the scenes of jubilation will spark the Argentina side to greater performances with tougher tests ahead
Author: Nancy Parker
Nancy Parker is a five time Emmy Award winning journalist and seven time Emmy nominee who has spent almost twenty five years covering news in South Louisiana. She has anchored every prime time newscast at WVUE FOX8 during her twenty year tenure in New Orleans.