In the end Argentina got there. It wasn’t pretty or straightforward on a balmy night in Saint Petersburg but the celebrations when Marcos Rojo’s right-footed volley put them ahead against Nigeria with four minutes to go betrayed all of their emotions: this meant a lot to Jorge Sampaoli and his team who had come in for heavy criticism in the days leading up to this win or bust affair. And for once, Lionel Messi, the beacon and standard-bearer of Argentinean hopes, didn’t have to go it all alone. He had assistance from an unexpected source.
Before the success, first the anguish. It felt like one of those demoralizing nights for Argentina, the kind they have become increasingly accustomed to in recent years. Moments before Rojo scored his spectacular winner Gonzalo Higuian ballooned over the bar. Behind him was Messi, on the penalty spot, shaping to shoot. It echoed the 2014 World Cup final when Higuian’s profligacy cost this team dear.
Messi had begun this game like a house on fire, a man on a mission to right the wrongs of a missed penalty against Iceland and an ineffectual showing against Croatia. And he had to. There is no hope or a prayer for this Argentina team if Messi doesn’t play his best game or something close to it. Without him they look lost and bereft of ideas. Of course it helped that Nigeria defended like a side who had never heard of Messi’s ingenuity.
Sampaoli changed things for this game, bringing in Ever Banega into the heart of midfield and reverting to a 4-3-3 with Angel di Maria and Higuain afforded rare starts. Franco Armani replaced the hapless Willy Caballero in goal. Banega got the party started with a wonderfully lofted ball into Messi’s path, Omeruo was ahead of Argentina’s captain yet somehow ended up in a different post code. But Messi was sublime: a delightful touch to bring it down, an even better one to set it artfully into his path before lashing it with venom past Francis Uzoho in the Nigeria goal.
Argentina move on despite the questions about their actual aptitude and for a side ran ragged by Nigeria several times in the second half, none of the teams in the knockout rounds will be afraid to face them. For now the immediate questions have been answered: France awaits in a tasty tie in Kazan on Saturday. Messi and Argentina got what they came for and even a divine messenger needed help from a more mortal source. Rojo stepped up and Sampaoli can rest easy for a few nights at least.