Tears of joy for Argentina as Marcos Rojo books last 16 berth
Lionel Messi bagged the first before Nigeria equalised and then late drama unfolded
Argentina’s Marcos Rojo celebrates scoring their second goal with Lionel Messi during the 2018 World Cup Group D clash in St Petersburg. Photo: Henry Romero/Reuters
And so, when it came to it, when it seemed that all was lost, Argentina’s hero appeared. His name, this time, was Marcos Rojo. With the Albiceleste on the verge of elimination, the scene before them horribly familiar, songs dying in a thousand throats, the Manchester United defender appeared inside the area to guide a wonderful volley into the corner and send them through to the last 16, at the cost of Nigeria side who had come from a goal down to make it 1-1 and might have won it. Instead, at the end, it was Argentina celebrating, noise engulfing this arena, players in tears.
Jorge Sampaoli once said that the World Cup is a revolver held against Lionel Messi’s head. Russian roulette is a game that must eventually end one way, but Argentina had hoped it would last longer than it appeared it was going to here, Javier Mascherano the man who seemed to have pulled the trigger until Rojo came to the rescue. Messi had given Argentina the lead with a wonderful goal but a penalty gifted Nigeria an equaliser that left them on the edge of elimination and seemed to offer a portrait of this side. For once, though, there was joy, relief, and it was not Messi who delivered it.
Not only, anyway. Against Croatia, Messi had only 49 touches, withdrawing into himself almost entirely as the second half progressed and Argentina collapsed. Here, he had almost surpassed that amount by half time and two of them were especially sublime, producing a moment that will live long in the memory – almost as long as Rojo’s. Éver Banega sent a wonderful pass from the halfway line to the edge of the area, where Messi was rushing in behind. He controlled on his thigh and then, without letting the ball drop, took another touch with his left foot, before thumping it into the top corner with his right.
He turned and ran, arms outstretched, towards the corner, teammates running after him, slowed and sank to his knees. There he pointed to the sky, neck tilted back, with a look on his face that was almost manic. All around him, the noise. Oh, the noise. A release in blue and white. In the stands, Diego Maradona, screamed and grabbed himself, like some self-imposed straitjacket. Maybe there was life left in Argentina. Maybe, as Sampaoli had said, their World Cup could start here. It had started well, after all. As the second half progressed, though, it looked like it would end in despair.
Argentina had appeared at least. In part, perhaps because Banega had, his pass for the goal making his previous absence from the starting XI even more baffling. But it was not just that, it was the sense that someone out there could pass, control, play. He found Messi soon after, whose cross was blocked, but anticipation grew. The No 10 was in this, the shutters no longer pulled down. He slotted a superbly weighted ball through the gap and into the area for Gonzalo Higuaín, but he was unable to lift it over Francis Uzoho. Then Banega played a lovely pass through the gap for Ángel Di María to rush onto, away behind Nigeria. He appeared to be clipped by Leon Balogun and, from the free-kick, Messi bent a shot against the far post.
Argentina were swift, and there was support for Messi, but there was also a certain vulnerability. Not just here, where Rojo’s extremely high challenge was a risk inside his own area but also in Rostov, where Iceland played Croatia.
Croatia scored early in the second half to reduce that threat, but there is no threat greater than the one Argentina pose to themselves and by the time that goal had gone in Nigeria had already been gifted a way back, a route into the next round. The collapse had come. Mascherano, a man with a startling lack of wisdom for one so old, Leon Balogun at a corner. Cuneyt Cakir gave a penalty, which Victor Moses calmly rolled in. The corner that led to it had come when three Argentina players got in each other’s way. Mascherano’s challenge would always have been foolish; with VAR it was reckless.
Here was a portrait of them: anything Messi could do, his teammates could undo? Not this time.
Desperation was always likely to see the return of familiar flaws. Sampaoli made changes, but when you do not have a structure, a framework, an idea, there is nothing really to fall back on. Except, of course, Messi. And everyone knows that. Sometimes it is worth looking elsewhere. At the very end, Argentina did. The suffering though was unbearable.
Again, the tension; again, the inaccuracy. Again, the determination to pass responsibility – better than they passed the ball. And as they pushed, they could have been caught. Far from slowly slipping away from them, it might have been ripped away in an instant, like when Ahmed Musa escaped down the left, Odion Ighalo dummied and Wilfred Ndidi thumped over.
There were more. Rojo lost the flight of Musa’s pass, watching it bounce off his arm to Ighalo who scuffed his shot and then Ighalo was sent clean through, but struck against the leg of Franco Armani. Oghenekaro Etebo curled a free-kick into the side-netting. Just before those chances, Higuaín had sent a shot sailing into the stands. Running in behind him by the penalty spot ready to shoot was Messi, but his teammate took it from him. That felt like the end, a telling and sad finale. But with four minutes left, Higuaín crossed from the right and Rojo guided a wonderful volley into the corner. As Rojo ran and celebrated, Messi erupted, chased after him and leapt onto his back. This time, his teammate carried him. – Guardian service
NIGERIA (3-5-2): Uzoho; Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Omeruo (Iwobi 90); Moses, Etebo, Mikel, Ndidi, Idowu; Musa (Simy 90); Iheanacho (Ighalo 46).
Booked: Balogun, Mikel. Goals: Moses 51 pen.
ARGENTINA (4-4-2): Armani; Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico (Aguero 80); Perez (Pavon 60), Mascherano, Banega, Di Maria (Meza 72); Messi, Higuain.
Booked: Mascherano, Banega, Messi. Goals: Messi 14, Rojo 86.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).