Argentina's late win shows no one does World Cup madness quite like La Albiceleste
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- It will become one of the defining images of this World Cup: Lionel Messi being carried by a teammate as Argentina snatched a ticket into the knockout stages with a stunning late goal from Marcos Rojo that sealed a dramatic victory over Nigeria in St. Petersburg.
Messi is the one who usually does the carrying, of course. He is the guy who has the weight of a nation on his shoulders whenever he turns up at a World Cup, and it has been a crushing burden at times.
But as Rojo raced away in ecstasy after volleying Argentina to the win with just 3 minutes of normal time remaining, Messi leapt on the Manchester United defender's back like a child jumping onto his father, all relief, joy and celebration rolled into one.
You don't see Messi smile too often in an Argentina shirt, but he was beaming as he rode on Rojo's back.
"We have suffered a lot, it was a difficult situation," Messi said after the game. "It was a huge release and relief for all of us."
Was this the night that Messi and Argentina escaped their shackles and became a team again, after all the recent rows and meetings with coach Jorge Sampaoli? That is too early to say, and the storm clouds will roll in again if Argentina fail to defeat France in the round of 16 in Kazan on Saturday.
But what a game and what a night in the jaw-dropping Krestovsky Stadium. It was a World Cup clash that had everything; a 90-minute microcosm of what Russia 2018 has been about so far.
We had a Messi wonder goal, a penalty and then a VAR non-penalty when Rojo's "handball" was correctly dismissed by referee Cuneyt Cakir, some woeful performances by Argentina's so-called star players, then Rojo's amazing winner in front of 60,000 fans decked in blue-and-white shirts.
It could have been Buenos Aires or Rosario rather than a Russian city half the world away, and this game had all the madness you associate with football in Argentina, with a bloodied Javier Mascherano added to the mix.
Mascherano has been front and centre of the alleged infighting, and he looked the part with blood pouring from his cheek. The cliched Argentinian hard man? Mascherano ticked every box.
He gave away a penalty for wrestling Leon Balogun to the ground before having the audacity to tell Cakir that he was wrong. Replays proved otherwise.
This was a bad night for Mascherano, who repeatedly gave the ball away and merely added to the impression that Messi not only has to carry a nation but half a team of bad players whenever he plays for his country.
Gonzalo Higuain was another. Big reputation, big price tag, but the Juventus forward falls short on the big occasion time and again, and this was another case of Higuain going missing while Sergio Aguero spent all but the final 10 minutes on the bench.
No wonder Diego Maradona looked so agitated as he watched from the VIP seats.
When Messi scored his opener on 14 minutes, controlling Ever Banega's pass with his knee and right foot before shooting into net, Maradona celebrated by looking to the heavens from high in the stands. And when Rojo scored his winner, after Victor Moses had equalised with the penalty conceded by Mascherano, Argentina's greatest former player -- let's not start another Messi debate -- bared his soul by flicking both middle fingers in a defiant response to his country's last-gasp winner.
No football superpower does madness quite like Argentina. Maradona helps, of course, being Maradona, but Argentina's history is littered with the good, the bad and the ugly at World Cups. The Hand of God followed by Maradona's goal of the century against England in 1986 pretty much sums up Argentina: football's original angels with dirty faces.
Even Sampaoli, who was jeered loudly by the Argentina fans before the game, adds to the image with his sleeve tattoos on his arms. He also jumps around at the side of the pitch like Joe Pesci in "Casino," but once the whistle blew on this victory, he was down the tunnel in a puff of smoke, leaving his players and coaching staff to celebrate in front of their incredible supporters.
"My players play with their heart," Sampaoli said. "They are true rebels."
Don't tell that to Nigeria. They were four minutes away from making it to the round of 16, but when the cross came in for Rojo's goal, three defenders rushed to mark Aguero and left the centre-half to connect with the ball with a crisp right-foot volley. This is Rojo, the defender who can't get a game for United but who has now turned out to be Argentina's saviour.
It was one of those nights, but it can't always be Messi to the rescue.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_