|Nigeria vs Argentina [1:2] - Marcos Rojo saves Argentina|
Lionel Messi scored and scored a brilliant goal but, in itself, it was not enough against Nigeria who are out and will depart Russia with a sense of injustice and not least because at the identity of the man who sent them out. The Manchester United defender had already gone unpunished after catching Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho with a ridiculously high boot in the penalty area in the first-half and Rojo survived another spot-kick appeal - which even went to VAR after the referee Cuneyt Cakir was told to double-check it - when he headed the ball against his own arm in the second-half.Then as Argentina seemed to be subsumed by their angst, by the devils which have gripped them and the weight of expectation which has overwhelmed them Messi intervened again. Except it was to roll a simple pass down the right touchline for Gabriel Mercado to send in a cross. Quite what Rojo was doing there in the first place who knows but such was Argentina’s plight at that point - when they had lost all shape and formation - that they needed something unlikely.
Instead of Gonzalo Higuain, instead of Sergio Aguero, who had also come on by that stage, it was the centre-half to strike the sweetest of volleys which tore past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and into the net. There were 86 minutes on the clock. Just four minutes plus injury-time to go.
That clock was so close to ticking down but on an increasingly feverish and desperate night in St Petersburg, a night when the city and the stadium was turned into a fervent sea of blue and white clad, chanting Argentinians they saved themselves and will go forward from Group D, runners-up to Croatia, to face France, after collecting just four points from three unconvincing performances.
When that final whistle went all control was lost. The bench exploded onto the pitch, the players slumped in God-like prayer, including their little God Messi, who actually stood motionless in this maelstrom deep in his own thoughts and communications. Coach Jorge Sampaoli had also earned his reprieve even if his influence on this squad is so damaged that he will not remain in his post, come what may.
Even at half-time the cameras cut to the tunnel to catch Messi giving a team-talk while the rumours were that his team-mate Javier Mascherano had helped select the starting XI which was, in fact, the oldest ever to appear at a World Cup with an average age of 30 years and 189 days.
It felt like a team out of touch, out of time and out of this tournament despite their undeniable, dervish effort. But there was only one thirty-something who matters and Messi was not bowing out. Not now. Not yet. This World Cup has been a brilliant festival of football but it was lacking one thing. It was lacking Messi. And he gave it. His first-half goal was simply beautiful in every aspect. It came as Ever Banega, one of five changes made by Sampaoli or, rather, by the players as the coach drowns in a sea of revolt, flighted a glorious pass forward which picked out Messi.
The forward took it down on his thigh, as he sprinted, cushioned it with his left-foot, accelerated to give him sufficient space ahead of defender Kenneth Omeruo, of Chelsea, and slammed a right-footed shot back across Uzoho. The goalkeeper was left grasping air, the ball was in the net and Messi was scampering off in celebration. In the stands Diego Maradona folded his arms across his chest and raised his eyes to the heavens in relief. And with that it was the 100th goal of this World Cup, Messi became the first player to score in this competition as a teenager, in his 20s and in his 30s and 660 World Cup minutes without a goal ended for him.
Messi had been stationed out towards the right-wing in this re-worked team but, for 45 inspired minutes, he simply used that as his launch-pad. It was his finely-weighted pass that split the Nigerian defence to send Higuain through only for Uzoho to smother and he stepped up to take the free-kick after Leon Balogun tripped Angel Di Maria. From it Messi swung his shot left-footed across goal with the ball cannoning back off the far post. It would have gone in but for a finger-tip touch from the diving Uzoho.
Nigeria have proved themselves to be far better in the second-half of matches and so it proved again. If one of Messi’s tunnel messages was to concentrate, not do anything stupid then it was not heeded by Mascherano who foolishly held Balogun at Nigeria’s first corner after the re-start. The penalty was given and Victor Moses calmly stroked it beyond debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani to level the scores.
Argentina were stunned. Suddenly panic set in as they desperately tried to regain the initiative. The body language of both sets of players switched and Iheanacho’s replacement, Odion Ighalo, shot wastefully wide and was later denied by Armani when he had to score. By now nerves were frayed. Argentina escaped the penalty appeal, a draw would not be enough but, through Rojo, they grasped the lifeline.