Marcos Rojo’s dramatic winner seals Argentina’s World Cup progress


86 minutes were on the clock, Argentina were heading for another disappointing draw; a solitary point against Nigeria which would have seen La Albiceleste eliminated from the World Cup at the first hurdle without a win to their name.

A hero was needed and on this occasion it wasn’t to be Lionel Messi but rather Marcos Rojo. The Manchester United defender inexplicably far forward arrived to expertly volley Gabriel Mercado’s right-wing cross into the bottom corner and seal a vital win for Jorge Sampaoli’s under-pressure side.

Argentina’s victory looked likely after vastly improved opening 45 minutes that saw the reintroduced Ever Banega and Lionel Messi torment Nigeria and deservedly have Sampaoli’s side ahead. However, a contrasting second half display exhibited everything wrong with this side and after the Super Eagles had levelled, Argentina lost all shape in search of a winner.

Sampaoli, after much debating with his squad since the defeat to Croatia, reverted back to a 4-3-3 of sorts and with Ever Banega back in the midfield, Argentina immediately saw the benefit.

Argentina began probing almost from the off and after quarter of an hour got their reward. Banega, afforded far too much space by Nigeria, picked a perfect pass over the top of the defence for Messi, now able to look for those spaces behind rather than drop deep for the ball. The world’s best player controlled it sensationally on the thigh, took a touch and then rifled a shot past Francis Uzoho.

The relief for Argentina was clear but for Messi too it put an end to run of 662 minutes without a goal at the World Cup – his last also coming against Nigeria in 2014.

And it could have been more as Messi rattled the post with a free-kick and thread a defence splitting pass to Gonzalo Higuaín only for Uzoho to block at the striker’s feet.

Jorge Sampaoli had said Argentina’s World Cup started here and during the opening 45 minutes it seemed like it had.

But as quickly as Argentina looked to have turned a corner, they plunged back into disorder. The catalyst to that being Javier Mascherano’s reckless decision to hold Leon Balogun at a corner shortly after the break.

There have undoubtedly been several worse cases of holding that have gone unpunished at this tournament but Javier Mascherano always ran the risk when he wrapped his arms round Balogun at it allowed Victor Moses the opportunity to wrong foot Franco Armani and bring Nigeria level from the spot.

Argentina’s reaction to Croatia’s goal was one of chaos and desperation and so it proved once more against Nigeria. Any semblance of structure was lost and as Sampaoli threw on Cristian Pavón, Maxi Meza and Sergio Agüero, it was clear that La Albiceleste were holding out for another Messi miracle.

Nigeria would have felt confident if they could stop that, they would stop Argentina but with time running out Mercado escaped down the right, his hanging cross dropped in the box and Marcos Rojo struck.

The final whistle eventually blew and the stadium, awash in blue and white erupted.

“We were confident we would win this game,” Lionel Messi said afterwards. “It’s wonderful to have won it this way – it is a well-deserved joy.”

Messi might claim to have been confident but the reaction at full time suggested otherwise.

There is still much to do and huge improvements to make but Argentina are still alive and on Saturday face Group C winners France. For the first time at this tournament, Messi and Co. will be underdogs and however much the French may have underperformed another significant step up is required if Argentina are to go one further.

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