Russia 2018 Watch: Messi’s Argentina move through
PUBLISHED: 21:48 26 June 2018 | UPDATED: 08:16 27 June 2018
PA Wire/PA Images
Read our World Cup blog over the coming weeks. Lee Power reviews one of the late games on day 13 of the tournament
Clearly, it’s not over until the fat bloke sings.
Argentina were four minutes away from an ignominious exit from this World Cup, when Marcos Rojo volleyed a dramatic winner against Nigeria.
Diego Maradona could not contain his excitement.
After the farcical 0-0 draw between co-qualifiers France and Denmark a few hours earlier, this was a must-win game for Lionel Messi and Co following their 3-0 humbling at the hands of Croatia.
Guy Mowbray set the tone by likening St Petersburg to Venice and Paris, romantic European cities. Inside the stadium it was like Buenos Aires as the passionate Argentine fans belted out their national anthem.
Jermaine Jenas called the atmosphere ‘electric’ and it felt just like that watching from my sofa.
Despite seeing England knocked out by the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986 and a penalty shoot-out in 1998, I was actually hoping Argentina would get the result they needed to progress to the last 16, for the chance to see more of Messi.
Nigeria were wearing their smart green kit, rather than their party green, but Kelechi Iheanacho lost his footing when trying to punish a stray pass from Javier Mascherano.
Then, with almost a quarter of an hour gone, came Messi’s best moment of this tournament.
Evan Banega played an inch-perfect pass upfield, Messi controlled it on his left thigh and helped the ball on with his left instep, then smashed a right-footed shot past Francis Uzoho and into the far corner of the net.
He had attempted 22 shots without scoring until that moment and his last World Cup goal had been four years earlier, against Nigeria.
Rio Ferdinand was impressed in the BBC studio, saying: “He puts it in the top bin. It is ridiculous.”
Maradona was close to tears already. Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli was again looking like Andre Agassi.
It was the 100th goal of this World Cup and a fitting finish.
Mascherano, despite having a record 146 caps to his name, was ‘having a tough time, struggling to find a pass’ according to the commentary, having managed a perfect 70/70 in the first half of the Iceland game.
Messi threaded the ball to Gonzalo Higuain, who let it run off his toe, then saw his left shin connect with Uzoho, the 19-year-old keeper who had been part of Nigeria’s World Under-17 Cup winning team at the age of just 14.
“It’s a team game, but these guys make the difference,” said Mowbray.
“He’s in the mood,” added Jenas, who was less sure about the Argentine defence, adding: “This back four don’t fill you with confidence. You feel like there’s going to be a mistake.”
Banega sent Angel Di Maria streaking clear, to be clipped by a covering defender, and Messi was inches away from doubling his side’s lead, but his free-kick hit the far post.
“It’s absolutely brilliant from Uzoho, he just got a fingertip to it,” noted Jenas after a replay.
Maradona was shown on screen, appearing to have fallen asleep, with Mowbray then telling viewers how Nigerian media had recalled the 1994 World Cup meeting between the countries, which Argentina won 2-1, before Maradona failed a drugs test that signalled the end of his career.
The Africans were claiming they would do the same to Messi, whose side took their slender lead into the break.
And Nigeria sent on former Watford man Odionn Ighalo for Leicester’s Iheanacho during the interval, then drew level within six minutes of the restart when Mascherano was penalised for holding at a corner.
“Harsh,” said Jenas. Chelsea’s Victor Moses, cool as you like, rolled the spot-kick into the net to level.
Nigeria – as it stood – were in second place behind Croatia at this point, with Argentina now blowing, with their average age over 30.
Sampaoli sent Cristian “Kirsten Dunst” Pavon on in search of a second goal, but his side looked like unravelling, with Nigeria now quicker on to Messi.
Wilfred Ndidi blasted over, Ighalo shot wide, VAR was consulted for a possible handball against Marcos Rojo for a mistimed header. No penalty was given.
Sergio Aguero was sent on for the last 10 minutes, but the situation was summed up perfectly by one Adam, on BBC Sport’s website.
He posted: “Argentina look like a pub team whose big centre-back called Daz has roped in his ex pro brother-in-law to one-man team it for them at number 10, in exchange for 2 pints and some pork scratchings”.
Right on cue. Higuain slammed a shot over. Chris Waddle said it bobbled on radio.
Ighalo then forced Argentine debutant Franco Armani into a save and Oghenekaro Etebo, of Stoke, fired into side netting.
Nigeria looked the more likely to net a winner when – bang!
It was the 86th minute and the ball came in from the right and Rojo, having stayed upfield from an earlier attack, sent a sweet low volley flashing into the bottom corner for his third international goal
“Now this place is absolutely rocking,” said Jenas. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Rojo running onto it, but he was free as a bird.”
Rojo had form apparently, netting the winning goal in 3-2 victory four years ago, when Argentina had already ensured their progress anyway.
But as Mowbray noted: “This lightning bolt carries more power”.
Messi was booked for time wasting during four minutes of injury time, mortal after all.
Nigeria played the ball into the box one last time, but it ran beyond John Obi Mikel to the keeper.
“Armani is as Armani should be, very sharp,” said Mowbray as Argentina claimed their fifth successive win over Nigeria, all by single-goal margins.
“World Cups have been won by slow starters before,” added Mowbray.
Argentina play France on Saturday for a place in the quarter-finals, while group winners Croatia meet Denmark.
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