Rojo: “My goal? Messi told everyone that it was either life or death. It would’ve gone badly. We could’ve conceded but Leo was stubborn. He told me to run forward. Even Masche. He told everyone to attack no matter what. He truly read the game & risks. He’s a leader. The best.”

Diego Maradona sat, looking sorry and upset. Leo Messi had given up almost, head down and feeling despondent. Five-yard passes were proving impossible to execute at times for La Albiceleste. Ahmed Musa was roasting them at will, while Odion Ighalo seemed to have forgotten how to finish. Gonzalo Higuain had come up a cropper again. At times though, sport can conjure moments that transcend such material analysis and criticism. Mercado whizzed a cross in, for Marcos Rojo to finish with a sweetly hit right foot volley, a striker’s finish. The collective energy and prayers of a nation had sucked the ball against all the odds into the goal. Bedlam in the stands, euphoria for those of a sky blue persuasion.

Talk was afoot that today’s Argentina side was selected without the involvement of Jorge Sampaoli, with player revolt afoot. Argentina certainty started better than how they have played so far in the tournament, at a noticeably faster tempo. They were comfortable on the ball, working it well in midfield, just short of a final ball. Ever Banega was a noticeable presence, demanding the ball and hitting good forward passes. In the 14th minute, a delightful ping over the top from Banega found Messi. A touch off his thigh, the second with his left foot, and the third with his right to steer it past the goalkeeper. A goal of art and his celebration showed how heavily the pressure has weighed.

Nigeria, like in their previous game against Iceland, seemed to be dreadful in the first half. Di Maria was released onto goal around the 34th minute and was clipped cynically by Leon Balogun; who was perhaps lucky to have seen only yellow. Messi delicately aimed the resulting free kick, seeing it smash onto the post.

The game visibly changed in the second half, with Argentina losing their modicum of control. Javier Mascherano’s antics in the box, grabbing Balogun and shoving him proved extremely costly, as referee Cuneyt Cakir awarded a spot kick. Victor Moses made no mistake from 12 yards, and Argentina were in a fight. Heads dropped almost immediately, passes became harder to pick and the crowd became restless. With no accuracy and tempo, Argentina were always vulnerable to dangerous counter-attacks in turnovers.

Wilfred Ndidi had a powerful effort at goal, while Musa came to the party as well. An attempted pick out from him made its way to Odion Ighalo, lopping off the arm of Marcos Rojo. With time and space, he fluffed his lines, blazing over. Not even VAR could save his blushes. Musa found Ighalo again in a tight angle, the outcome the same. Messi and his teammates seemed to be rapidly sinking, when Higuain fluffed a great chance, blazing over. With limited service, Argentina seemed stuck in a rut. Mercado, however, proved a godsend, with a wonderful ball into the box. It did not find Aguero or Messi. A sweet, precise volley left the right boot of Marcos Rojo, sealing a last 16 berth in the dying embers and sparked off amusing antics from King Diego in the stands.

Ever Banega had a great game, covering every blade of grass, and making smart forward passes. Messi took this goal superbly but had a quiet second half. Marcos Rojo had a neat performance at the back to go with his historic finish. Javier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain are both lucky men, with their errors not being consequential. For Nigeria, the likes of John Obi Mikel and Musa bust a gut trying to affect things. It was not meant to be, but they did offer some great heart and fight in the contest.

Argentina avoided the shame of a group stage exit for only the second time in their history. Leo Messi scored the tournament’s 100th goal. The goal was also his first at the World Cup in 662 minutes, a welcome monkey off the back. This was Argentina’s oldest starting lineup at the World Cup as well. Nigeria have now played against Argentina five times at the world cup, losing all 5.

In many ways, football fans, journalists and TV pundits find it easy to engage in banter and lose criticism. But there are some times when all of us unite to celebrate a moment of history. There are some truly famous ones that stand out, like King Diego’s ‘Hand of God’. And as he engaged in his delirious celebrations, one cannot help but smile. For the Argentines, the game is everything. And moments like Rojo’s goal are small reminders of why we love this game so much. Nigeria and their spirit will be a good memoir from this World Cup. Argentina will face France now, in a red letter fixture, no one can wait for. While today’s win is a relief, Argentina still have major problems to sort out, including a non-existent defence. But for now, we all need a breath. Before the next great moment arrives.

Feature image via The New York Times

Stats via Opta and Squawka

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