No one expected it to be smooth sailing but in the end Jorge Sampaoli, with massive help from Lionel Messi and Marcos Rojo, did just enough to edge out Nigeria and book their place in the Last 16.
Francis, Idowu, Ekong, Balogun, Omeruo (Iwobi, min. 89), Ndidi, Etebo, Obi Mikel, Musa (Nwankwo, min. 90+2), Moses e Iheanacho (Ighalo, min. 44).
Armani, Mercado, Rojo, Otamendi, Tagliafico (Agüero, min. 79), Mascherano, Banega, Di María (Meza, min. 71), Enzo Pérez (Pavón, min. 60), Higuaín y Messi.
0-1, Messi (min. 14). 1-1, Moses (p) (min. 50). 1-2 Rojo (min. 86).
Cuneyt Cakir (Turquía). Amonestó con cartulina amarilla a Balogun (min. 32), Banega (min. 64), Mascherano (min. 49), Obi Mikel (min. 90) y Messi (min. 90+3).
Partido correspondiente a la última jornada del grupo D del Mundial de Rusia, disputado en el estadio de San Petersburgo.
Argentina have been searching for the missing link which releases Messi from doing, well, everything. It turns it that it wasn’t whether Sergio Aguero or Gonzalo Higuain was on the pitch but rather further back, in midfield, in the shape of Ever Banega.
The Sevilla playmaker was already showing his value to the team by recycling the possession amongst Argentina’s danger men. All while Javier Mascherano was doing his best to hand Nigeria the opener. Thankfully that opportunity was squandered. However Banega – and Messi – weren’t in an as forgiving mood.
Banega pinged a 40 yard ball to Messi and the Barcelona man brought it down with precision only he is capable of before firing it across goal and sending an entire country into ecstacy. Even Diego Maradona rose from his seat and began to shake uncontrollably as he looked into the sky, as if thanking someone for the goal. Listen up, Diego. The only guy you should be thanking is the one wearing no.10.
Messi was now in the mood and sent Higuain in behind the defence. The Juventus man tried to reach the ball but got more of the Nigerian keeper’s head than anything else. Luckily it wasn’t a serious injury although the replays made you think back to what happened to Petr Cech against Wigan. It looked nasty.
Nigeria were struggling to adapt to going a goal down and were offering nothing in attack. Higuain then turned provider as he sent Angel Di Maria running onto goal but he was brought down on the edge of the box. Messi stepped up and curled his effort across the goal but the keeper got his fingertips to the ball and diverted it onto the post.
As half time approached Nigeria might feel they deserved a penalty when Marcos Rojo’s needlessly high foot was close to Iheanacho’s head. It’s one of those that anywhere else on the pitch is a foul but in the penalty area is less certain for referees. Maradona missed it as he was spotted asleep in the stands.
If no one tapped Diego on the shoulder to wake him up during half time, he’ll have missed Mascherano’s moment of madness as Nigeria were awarded a penalty this time. The ex-Barça defender pleaded his innocence but it seemed clear to everyone that he didn’t have much of a case.
Victor Moses stepped up and converted the spot kick to put Nigeria one step closer to the Last 16 as a draw was all the needed. In the other game Croatia took the lead against Iceland meaning it was a straight fight between Argentina and Nigeria for second.
Suddenly that confidence, that swagger had been sucked right out of Argentina as quickly as Maradona finishes a drink. Nigeria sat back and were comfortable but whenever they broke on the counter, Argentina were all over the shop. Ighalo missed a golden chance and then wanted a penalty for handball. The referee consulted VAR and rightly agreed it wasn’t a penalty.
It was then the turn of Nigeria to suffer as Gonzalo Higuain, often the villain for his country, who was handed a wonderful chance at redemption. He of course missed that chance. Sampaoli had thrown on Pavon, Meza and Aguero in the hope of turing things around. He needed a goal as desperately as Maradona needed a cold shower.
With time running out, Argentina searched for a hero. It was supposed to be Messi, it should have been Messi, but it wasn’t. Instead a fantastic ball from the right hand side from Mercado fell kindly to his fellow full back, Marcos Rojo. The country held its breath as Rojo unleashed a volley Messi would’ve been proud of and it flew into the back of the net.
There was an incredible roar which went up in the stadium, out of relief as much as it was joy. The camera predictably panned to Maradona in the stands. He was awake, thankfully, and letting everyone know the Croatia-Iceland score. 1-1. That was enough for Argentina, a victory would see them through unless there was a late goal in the other match for Iceland.
And there was time for another goal between Croatia and Iceland but, to Messi and Maradona’s relief, it went to Croatia and this rubberstamped their place in the Last 16. It was anything but easy and they’ll need to improve tenfold if they harbour any hope of winning this tournament but, for now, all that matters is Argentina are through. Next up? Antoine Griezmann's France.