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Marcos Rojo was the unlikely hero as he scored a wonderful late goal to see Argentina to a 2-1 win against Nigeria on Tuesday to secure the second spot in Group D at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and send the African outfit home.
Victor Moses’ second-half penalty had cancelled out Lionel Messi’s 14th-minute opener at Saint Petersburg Stadium, and Argentina looked to be heading out at the group stage.
But a composed side-footed volley from Rojo in the 86th minute snatched the three points for Argentina and booked them a place in the first knockout round.
Marcos Rojo Steps In to Show Gonzalo Higuain How It’s Done
It should not have been such a late escape for La Albiceleste. They had their chances to wrap up the match earlier, but they wasted them. And no player did so more than No. 9 Gonzalo Higuain.
The Juventus striker has never enjoyed his best form in his national team shirt, and there will be big questions over whether the side should include him in the starting XI for the next round following Tuesday’s performance:
Jimmy Conrad @JimmyConrad
I’m still in disbelief that Higuain went Full Higuain.
You never want to go Full Higuain.
Chris Winterburn @cmwinterburn
Damning indictment of decision to leave Mauro Icardi at home is the fact Marcos Rojo has contributed more as a centre forward in five minutes than Gonzalo Higuain has in the entire tournament.
When Argentina finally did find their winner, it was the unexpected Rojo from around the penalty spot, and he finished from 12 yards with the precision of a seasoned striker:
Gabriel Mercado provided a wonderful ball into the box from the right, but the Manchester United man still had a huge amount of work to do.
As the ball was whipped in, there would have been plenty of Argentinians lamenting the fact that it wasn’t Higuain or Sergio Aguero in the box, but Rojo proved to have the perfect technique at the right moment.
Lionel Messi Only Needed Ever Banega to Shine
Messi spent much of Argentina’s 3-0 defeat to Croatia struggling to get his foot on the ball.
In the baffling absence of Sevilla playmaker Ever Banega, there was no one to find the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, and he had little chance to influence the game, per OptaJavier:
49 – Lionel #Messi 🇦🇷 had only 49 touches against #CRO; less than in any #WorldCup game in which he played more than 70 minutes. Blocked. https://t.co/ivy6dUiRil
It came as little surprise to many, then, when Banega was the one to set up Messi for his wonderful 14th-minute opener:
Sam Tighe @stighefootball
Much, much better from #ARG. Messi and Banega have found their flow so chances are being created. Etebo doing well in there for #NGA too. #WorldCup
The Barcelona superstar still had plenty to do and took two deft touches before firing across Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and into the corner of the goal.
But he had to be found beyond the defence, and Banega picked him out with an inch-perfect ball.
The midfielder was less influential as La Albiceleste were put under the cosh by Nigeria in the second half, and so was Messi as a result.
But if Argentina are to now go deep in the competition, the 29-year-old has to remain in the side.
Nigeria Can Peak at Qatar 2022
GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images
Tuesday’s defeat will be hard for the Super Eagles, as they had their chances to take the lead.
They harried Argentina with their pace and verve in the second half, and Moses’ equaliser from the spot was as cool as they come.
However, there are positives for Nigeria to take from the tournament.
Twice they rallied at half-time, and twice it nearly came off—they beat Iceland 2-0 last Friday with two goals after the break.
And, as the youngest side on average in the World Cup, they can look forward to Qatar 2022 with excitement.
They went toe-to-toe with Argentina and almost came through it, and the likes of 22-year-old Oghenekaro Etebo, 21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi and 19-year-old Uzoho will be better players for it.
In what looks set to be a mouth-watering meeting in the last 16, Argentina will face France at the Kazan Arena on Saturday.
For the Super Eagles, though, it is the end of the road as they bow out of Russia 2018 after finishing third in Group D.