Argentina, Lionel Messi scrape into last 16 of World Cup
From the brink of a humiliating World Cup exit, to a sensational late win. Argentina lives on at Russia 2018.
Drawing 1-1 with Nigeria with merely minutes remaining, the Argentines were heading out of the tournament and the Super Eagles were set to progress to the last 16.
But an incredible 86th-minute winner from defender Marcos Rojo earned Argentina a 2-1 victory which put Lionel Messi and co through to the knockout stages at the expense of their opponents and set up a last-16 encounter with France.
It was another thrilling finale at a World Cup which has provided much drama.
Messi was in inspired form in the opening 45 minutes and put his team ahead with a well-taken strike into the far corner, his first goal of the tournament and the 100th scored at this World Cup.
Yet it seemed as if the Barcelona star would feature no more in this competition when a Victor Moses penalty leveled for the Super Eagles.
Nigeria only needed a draw to reach the last 16 and Javier Mascherano looked to have assisted the Nigerians in their quest as it was his foul on Leon Balogun that led to Moses’ 51st-minute spot kick.
But in the dying minutes Rojo arrowed a first-time shot into the bottom corner for the final twist in an enthralling match.
It was an exquisite finish from a Gabriel Mercado cross and the most important of the Manchester United’s three goals for his country. Messi jumped on Rojo’s shoulders as Argentina wildly celebrated a late reprieve.
Argentina’s fans in the St. Petersburg Stadium celebrated equally ecstatically, notably football legend Diego Maradona who directed a middle-finger salute — with both hands — at hecklers below where he was sitting.
The 1986 World Cup winner had been watching from inside an executive box in the stands, where he could be seen throughout the match, gesturing and shouting as his countrymen searched for a winning goal.
Following the final whistle, Maradona, 57, was reportedly treated by medical staff in a nearby room, with videos posted on social media showing the ex-Argentina star being helped from the stands.
According to Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, Maradona was treated for low blood pressure and left shortly afterwards.
The Nigerians, meanwhile, were left to wonder what might have been had they been more ruthless in goal. In the 75th minute Odion Ighalo in particular squandered a chance to put his team ahead and leave Argentina with a mountain to climb.
Nigeria claimed Rojo had handled the ball in the build up to Ingalo’s effort, but even after a VAR review the referee did not think the incident was a penalty.
Wilfred Ndidi also went close from distance, but ultimately Nigerian went on to suffer a fifth World Cup defeat to Argentina.
Croatia top Group D
Meanwhile, Iceland’s first World Cup adventure came to an end in Rostov-on-Don after a spirited 2-1 defeat against Group D winners Croatia, who will play Denmark in the next round.
Iceland took the game to its opponent and looked the better side for much of the 90 minutes.
Only a mixture of poor finishing, some brilliant goalkeeping and bit of misfortune meant the islanders were unable to make the most of their opportunities.
Croatia, however, has laid down a marker at this World Cup. Though this wasn’t its finest performance and the team looked disjointed — manager Zlatko Dalic made nine changes to his starting XI — it’s only the second team, after Uruguay, to pick up nine points from the opening three matches so far.
Boasting an abundance of talent in midfield, including the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, Croatia is being tipped by many as a dark horse to go far in Russia.
But it was another of its stars, Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic, who won it for Croatia at the death, after a Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty had canceled out Milan Badelj’s volley.
After an uneventful opening 40 minutes, the match finally came to life as the interval approached and Iceland began to test the Croatian defense for the first time.
Alfred Finnbogason came closest first, exchanging a neat one-two with Sigurdsson before curling his low shot narrowly wide of the post and into the side netting.
Croatia were being forced to withstand a barrage of pressure, repelling corners and that trademark Icelandic long throw.
It was then Aron Gunnarsson’s turn to bring the fans to the edge of their seats, running onto a loose ball on the edge of the area and bringing a spectacular, diving save out of Croatia’s stand-in goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic.
Yet it was Croatia who took a surprise lead early in the second half.
Badelj had only moments ago seen a thunderous strike hit the crossbar, but he kept this one down and volleyed the ball into the net.
Despite the setback, Iceland continued to press and looked by far the better side.
Birkir Bjarnason scuffed a shot in front of goal after being found by Finnbogason, but Iceland would soon have the goal it deserved.
Dejan Lovren’s obvious handball in the box was penalized by referee Antonio Mateu and Sigurdsson, despite missing a penalty in his previous game against Nigeria, stepped up and hammered the ball confidently into the roof of the net.
But as Iceland pressed on for the winner, Croatia punished some sloppy passing in midfield.
Goalscorer Badelj this time turned provider, threading a ball through to Perisic who finished emphatically into the top corner to maintain Croatia’s 100% record in Russia.