Marcos Rojo the unlikely hero as Argentina beat Nigeria to go through
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Argentina defeated Nigeria 2-1 in a wild Group D finale, a result that propelled the Albiceleste into the knockout round at the Super Eagles' expense.
Here are three thoughts on the match.
1. Argentina leaves it late as Rojo plays the hero
It was a dizzying and electric atmosphere heading into Tuesday night's decisive game. The two teams entered the match with huge contrasts in form. Nigeria was on a high after dispatching Iceland 2-0 and controlled its knockout round destiny. Meanwhile, Argentina was in a desperate state, having taken just one point from its first two matches, including a 3-0 humiliation at the hands of Croatia. Yet Argentina used that desperation in a positive way and was the aggressor for most of the match.
The hugely pro-Argentina crowd no doubt helped. The takeover of the St. Petersburg Stadium by Argentina's fans began well before kickoff, and if there was any doubt as to where they were apportioning blame for their current predicament, Lionel Messi was cheered while Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli was whistled. The sound coming from the stands was more roaring than singing, too, as if that alone might propel them into the knockout round.
Argentina certainly seemed buoyed by the level of support as it dominated possession in the early going. And while Messi didn't get that many touches in the early going, Ever Banega -- who was making his first start in the tournament -- was, and his contribution proved instrumental in crafting Argentina's opener. The pass itself, a clipped 40-yard ball over the top of the defense, was perfect but so were Messi's touches, the first with his left thigh and the second with his right foot, that allowed him to rifle the ball past Francis Uzoho in the Nigeria goal.
The stadium exploded with equal parts joy and relief, but there were still 75-plus nervy minutes to go. That said, Argentina continued to carry the play. The only anxious moments were created by some sloppy passes from Javier Mascherano though he was usually the one to clean up the mess.
As for Messi, it looked as though the anvil he'd been dragging around during this World Cup, especially in the 3-0 defeat to Croatia, had finally been shed. There was a look of determination in his eyes instead of the hangdog expression he had shown earlier in the tournament. His touches were aggressive, his runs dynamic. Messi put Gonzalo Higuain in on goal in the 27th minute only for Uzoho to deliver a save from close range. The Barcelona star then nearly doubled Argentina's lead in the 34th minute when he hit the post with a free kick, Uzoho getting a fingertip or two on the curling set-piece.
That inability to add to its lead came back to haunt Argentina. Just five minutes into the second half, Mascherano was judged to have dragged Leon Balogun down in the box during a corner, leading referee Cuneyt Cakir to point to the spot. Victor Moses calmly slotted home the ensuing penalty and the Super Eagles were level, with the results putting them in the last-16 had it held.
Substitute Odion Ighalo had a glorious chance to clinch the match in the 75th minute only to volley wide after Marcus Rojo's botched clearance. Argentina survived a potential penalty shot as well, as Rojo's header deflected off his arm, but Cakir ruled that there was no foul.
Argentina pressed vainly for a game-winning goal and it looked as though it wouldn't come. Higuain, as has been his habit in big moments, had a glorious opportunity in the 80th minute only to sky his shot over the bar. Yet the goal finally did come in the 86th minute from a most unlikely source.
Gabriel Mercado broke free down the right wing and his pass was fired into the net by Rojo, whose thunderous finish was only outdone by the roar of the crowd. The Argentine players piled on Rojo -- Messi in particular was on the Man United defender's shoulders -- barely believing what had transpired.
As the final whistle sounded, and with Iceland losing 2-1 to Croatia, Argentina's players were delirious with joy. After all, their World Cup dream lives on.
2. Argentina's supporting cast steps up
For all the questions surrounding the play of Messi during this World Cup, his teammates have been just as culpable. There has been little in the way of incisive play out of midfield and the defense has been frail. That all changed against Nigeria, with Banega in particular providing the kind of creativity needed to prevent Nigeria from focusing solely on Argentina's talisman. Not only did he set up Messi for the opening goal but he also released Angel di Maria on a clear breakaway that was only thwarted by a foul from Balogun, who received a yellow card for his professional foul.
Banega had been a regular contributor during Tata Martino's time in charge but under Sampaoli, his minutes have been less frequent, as he's started just five of Argentina's 11 games. At the World Cup Banega had become even more of an afterthought, making a 36-minute substitute appearance against Iceland and sitting out the Croatia game entirely. But with everything on the line, Sampaoli went back to Banega and it paid off in a big way.
He wasn't alone in his timely contributions, either. Goalkeeper Franco Armani was playing his first international match but delivered some immense saves, including one from Ighalo that would have put the game away. Of course, Rojo's contribution proved to be the biggest of all, the goal that will live in the memory of players and fans alike.
So now not only is Argentina still alive, but Messi's dream is as well. The round-of-16 will see Argentina square off against France in Kazan. It's as tough a match-up as one can expect at that stage but teams that have faced tournament elimination only to survive often carry a special kind of confidence. That could be just the mix to carry Argentina forward.
3. Nigeria left to rue missed opportunity
Super Eagles manager Gernot Rohr has long stated that his young side is gaining experience for the future but one can't help but look at its exit from the World Cup as an opportunity missed. Nigeria was up against a wounded team that was low on confidence. It then survived a first-half onslaught only to find an unlikely equalizer.
A draw would have been enough but much like Argentina in the first half, Nigeria failed to convert some glorious chances. Ighalo in particular will be having nightmares about the match given the looks that he had at goal.
They'll take controversy home with them as well. Should Rojo have been whistled for a penalty when his own header struck him in the arm? Nigeria fans will say yes, though there seemed little in the way of intent on the part of the Argentine defender.
Yet there is also a sense that Nigeria overall didn't play well enough on the day. The midfield in particular didn't do enough to grab a hold of the match and see it out. No doubt that will not be what haunts the Super Eagles' dreams. Instead there will be a sense of chances missed, and how close they came.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.