ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) – Argentina and Lionel Messi scraped into the knockout stages of the World Cup by the skin of their teeth on Tuesday after an 86th minute strike from defender Marcos Rojo gave them a barely deserved 2-1 win over Nigeria, eliminating the African side.
The twice World Cup champions will face France in the last 16 while Croatia, who advance as winners of Group D with the maximum nine points after beating Iceland 2-1, will take on Denmark.
Nigeria were just minutes away from progressing before central defender Rojo superbly volleyed home a Gabriel Mercado cross from the right.
As the drama unfolded in St Petersburg, Iceland were simultaneously fighting with all their Nordic might for a win over the Croats in Rostov-on-Don that could have sent them through. The Argentines, however, had enough on their plate with a feisty Nigeria to worry about results elsewhere.
Messi had put them ahead in the 14th minute, with a fabulously taken goal but the Africans equalized through a Victor Moses penalty in the 51st minute. The South Americans struggled to respond to that setback with a ragged second half display.
For all their attacking talent, it was their center half Rojo who delivered the decisive blow with a powerful and accurate strike that Messi himself would have been proud of.
“We already knew we were going to win, we were confident that God would help us, that all would turn out well. But we didn’t expect the complication of the draw, of suffering so much.
“What’s important is that we went through,” said Messi, who had been cheered on by compatriot Diego Maradona watching from the stands, along with a massive following of passionate and loud Argentine supporters.