Argentina broke the hearts of Nigeria once more as Marcus Rojo’s volley in the 86th minute lifted the two-time World Cup champion to a harrowing 2-1 victory Tuesday in St. Petersburg that secured passage into the round of 16 from Group D.
Lionel Messi scored La Albiceleste’s first goal in the 14th minute, helping them climb to second in the group while winner Croatia helped out with a 2-1 victory over Iceland in the other Group D match. It was the fifth time in as many World Cup matches Argentina emerged triumphant over Nigeria, with the stakes higher than any of their previous four meetings in group play.
Victor Moses converted a penalty on 51 minutes for the Super Eagles, who finished third in the group on three points and will be left to rue their listless performance in losing to Croatia in their group opener. Nigeria was denied a spot in the knockout round for the second consecutive World Cup and fourth overall in cruel fashion.
Argentina now faces an intriguing match with Group C winner France on Saturday in Kazan, part of an intriguing four-team mini-bracket in which the winner will face the winner of the Spain-Uruguay match in the quarterfinals.
Argentina made five changes to the side that was pummeled 3-0 by Croatia and switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 under embattled manager Jorge Sampaoli, with the most significant among them the introduction of Ever Banega and goalkeeper Franco Armani getting his first cap at a most pressurized moment. Gonzalo Higuain was up front with Messi, replacing Sergio Aguero.
Within 10 minutes, it was clear Messi was already far more involved than in the loss to Croatia, winning a free kick and having a cross from Higuain cleared from danger. Nigeria striker Kelechi Iheanacho was gifted a turnover by Javier Mascherano, but the veteran midfielder made sure there was no damage with a well-timed challenge.
Messi staked Argentina to the lead with his seventh World Cup goal, artfully controlling a long ball sent by Banega from the center stripe with his leg and playing it ahead with his left foot before beating Francis Uzoho with a right-footed strike across goal. He joined Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batitusta as the only Albiceleste players to score in three World Cups and became the first player in World Cup history to score a goal in his teens, his 20s and his 30s.
Argentina poured forward for a second, with Messi sending Higuain through, only to have Uzoho race off his line to bravely prevent the striker from getting a shot off. Messi nearly doubled the lead in the 34th minute after Angel Di Maria drew a foul in a dangerous area, wickedly curling a left-footed shot from 20 yards that a diving Uzoho touched off the right post.
Armani did well to come off his line and prevent Ahmed Musa from laching onto a cross in the 41st minute, and Rojo was lucky not to have gotten a yellow card for a high clearance that ended with him catching Musa in the head with his leg.
Nigeria manager Gernot Rohr introduced Odion Ighalo for Iheanacho at halftime, and the move paid instant dividends as the Super Eagles picked up their play in the second half. After a comical moment by three Argentina players resulted in a Nigeria corner, referee Cuneyt Cakir awarded a penalty after watching Mascherano haul down Leon Balogun in the box when it was whipped in.
Moses took a two-step buildup before sending Armani the wrong way as he slotted the ball into the right side of the net on 50 minutes, leveling the match and celebrating his goal with a backflip.
By this point, Croatia had taken the lead over Iceland, leaving these two sides to sort it out for second. Buoyed by their goal, the Super Eagles rose in confidence and began taking the match to a teetering Albiceleste side. A solid chance came in the 71st minute when Musa sent a cross that Ighalo dummied, but Wilfred Ndidi went wide from 20 yards.
At the start of the final quarter-hour, Ighalo should have done better with a volley from 15 yards that fizzed wide of the left post, though Nigeria also had a penalty shout on the cross from Musa that deflected off Mercado’s arm before Ighalo tried to lash it home. Cakir consulted VAR, but since Mercado played the ball off his head first, the no-call was confirmed.
In the other match, Iceland had pulled level, which added to the pressure on both teams. Higuain blazed over the bar horribly on 80 minutes, shortly after the introduction of Aguero as Argentina threw numbers forward in search of the winner. Ighalo had another chance to put Nigeria ahead, but Armani got a boot to his shot angling for the right corner.
Argentina’s goal started with Cristian Pavon playing the ball to the right to Mercado, who had bombed forward from his right back position. He whipped the cross into Rojo, and the unmarked Manchester United defender slashed a right-footed shot from just left of the penalty spot into the right corner of the net.
Messi jumped on Rojo’s back in celebrating the goal, which also got the weight of the world off Messi’s back and put Argentina into the round of 16.