Macdara Ferris reports from St. Petersburg
It was a dramatic night in St. Petersburg as Argentina just, and only just, made it through to the knockout stages at the expense of a Nigeria team who were crestfallen to have come within three minutes of qualification for the last 16.
Leo Messi had got the first goal for Argentina in a first half that they dominated, however a resurgent Nigeria came out and Victor Moses levelled early in the second half.
It looked like that would be that and Jorge Sampaoli’s men would be taking an early plane home from St. Petersburg.
However, in front of a massive blue and white travelling Argentinian support, Jorge Sampaoli’s men found a winning goal to keep them in tournament and Sampaoli in a job!
It was a Marco Rojo right foot belter that was the difference between the teams with the clocking ticking passed 87 minutes.
That goal was enough to take Argentina through to the last 16, where they will face France in Kazan on Saturday.
Messi had seemed lethargic in his side’s loss against Croatia, only getting on the ball 47 times, but he was centrally involved in this game.
He scored a cracking opening goal – the 100th of this tournament – In a first half that Argentina controlled, with 61% of the ball.
Nigeria were unchanged from their win over Iceland and went with three at the back. Unsurprisingly, Jorge Sampaoli shook up his starting line up – under pressure, maybe, from some of the players in his own squad.
He made five changes from their dismal performance in the 3-0 defeat to Croatia, and in came uncapped River Plate goalkeeper Franco Armani in for Willy Caballero.
In the opening 45 minutes, Argentina had Nigeria well-marshalled, which certainly suited Armani on debut.
Javier Mascherano was patrolling in front of the Argentina back four, and his timely intervention as Kelechi Iheanacho went to shoot was superbly timed.
Sevilla midfielder Ever Banega was involved in much of the best play that La Albiceleste had and his vision and Messi’s superb run and finish created the only goal of the first half.
Banega’s ball over the top gave the sizeable Argentina crowd in the stadium what they, and most football fans, had been waiting for, as their talismanic number ten got on the ball and delivered some Messi magic.
He took Banega’s long ball over the top on his left thigh, took one further left-foot touch to take it away from Kenneth Omeruo and then drilled it right-footed by Francis Uzoho to give Argentina a 14th minute lead.
Uzoho took one for the team when he came out to smother Gonzalo Higuain, and Leon Balogun went in the book for taking down Angel di Maria as he bore in on goal. Omeruo was covering across which prevented a red card.
From the resulting free-kick Messi bent it up and over the wall but it just caressed the far post with Uzoho getting a feather-thin touch on the ball as it bounced off the post and away to safety.
One of teams got into a huddle before going in at half-time and again when they came back out on the pitch but it was the Super Eagles rather than Argentina and maybe that helped Nigeria bring things level six minutes into the second half.
Mascherano’s good first-half work was undone by him holding onto and hauling down Leon Balogun as Nigeria swung a corner into the box.
Referee Cuneyt Cakir gave him a yellow card and eventually pointed to the spot without recourse to VAR.
Victor Moses sent Armani the other way slotting home his right foot penalty was calmness and then he went head-over-heels with his celebrations to temporarily silence the vocal Argentinian support.
With word that Croatia were beating Iceland, Nigeria were happy to sit off and defend the draw that would take them into the knock-out stages as runners up in Group D.
However, they did look to get forward when then could with Wilfred Ndidi letting fly with a rising shot that kept rising above the bar.
Ighalo should have buried the game with 15 minutes to go when Rojo made a hash of trying to clear the ball.
He swept his shot wide and when they had a VAR review on Rojo touching the ball with his hand, there would be no second penalty for Nigeria.
Armani had to pull off one save and then he was thankful to see a Nigerian free kick get around his wall but only touch the side netting.
Sampaoli brought Sergio Aguero on with ten minutes remaining as he stacked his offensive options.
Higuan ballooned one over the bar with the goal at his mercy as Argentina became desperate. They were only a few minutes from elimination but they would get one final chance.
It was a sweet strike from Rojo who swept Argentina into the lead and into the knockout stages with a crisp finish running onto a centre from the right.
There was relief at the end for Argentina. The team didn’t seem to want to leave the field at the end and the fans likewise weren’t making too many moves out of the stands.
There were tears for the Super Eagles who had tested and pressed Argentina all the way but couldn’t quite close off the result that they needed.
Across Argentina they will be hoping that this result will galvanise Sampaoli’s side who should have drawn strength from this late victory in St. Petersburg.
Nigeria: Francis Uzoho; Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo; Victor Moses, Oghenekaro Etebo, John Obi Mikel, Wilfred Ndidi, Bryan Idowu, Ahmed Musa (Simeon Nwankwo 90+3), Kelechi Iheanacho (Odion Ighalo 46).
Subs not used: Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, Abdullahi Shehu, Elderson Echiejile, Chidozie Awaziem, William Ekong, Tyronne Ebuehi, Kenneth Omeruo (Alex Iwobi 90+1), Ogenyi Onazi John Ogu, Joel Obi.
Booked: Leon Balogun (32), John Obi-Mikel (90+1).
Argentina: Franco Armani; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Tagliafico (Sergio Aguero 80); Enzo Perez (Cristian Pavon 61), Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria (Maximiliano Meza 72); Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain.
Subs not used: Willy Caballero, Nahuel Guzman, Federico Fazio, Eduardo Salvio, Cristian Ansaldi, Lucas Biglia, Giovani Lo Celso, Marcos Acuna, Paulo Dybala.
Booked: Javier Mascherano (49), Ever Banega (64), Lionel Messi (90+3)
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
Attendance: 64,468 (official).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Lionel Messi (Argentina).
We await the teams pic.twitter.com/CRjkrj1R1N— Extratime.ie (@ExtratimeNews) June 26, 2018