Argentina came back to defeat Nigeria 2-1 to finish in second place in Group D. Croatia defeated Iceland to win Group D
Argentina will face Group C winner to France.
Croatia will take on Denmark.
The Daily Mail:’ The ball, delightful from Ever Banega, arrived over his shoulder, on the run. Lionel Messi watched it onto his left thigh, killed it there, let it drop to his left boot, took a perfect controlling touch and switched it, right.
Kenneth Omeruo, whose job it was to in some way harness the wind at that point, knew he was in trouble. In these moments, it is as if Messi has a way of rendering opponents powerless. He shot, across goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, and the ball moved obediently into the far corner of Nigeria’s net without further instruction. A gem of a goal from a gem of a player.
So that’s what you would have been missing. That’s what would have disappeared from this World Cup had Argentina lost on Tuesday night. Sunshine. Magic. Wonder. Ultimately, it was a fabulous volley from Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo that propelled Argentina into the final 16, but this was about him. This was about our desire for one player to stay. Save Messi. That is what the neutrals desired.
Argentina – well, they have to take their chances with the other mortals. This is a team with an average age above 30 and some significant frailties. With France up next it may only delay their departure by days, not weeks, but for now, they and Messi remain.
The world will watch again on Saturday, to see if one man can inspire a nation once more. St Petersburg’s stadium was overwhelmed by Argentina’s travelling support, but their joy was spread wide. It would take a heart of stone not to smile at this. Messi endures.
This might have been his last World Cup appearance, without Rojo’s goal. There would have been a reckoning in Argentina after this, with speculation Messi was going to be among several senior players in an aging team to retire from international football. Yet had this goal, this performance, been his farewell, it was one that encapsulated why this prize has remained so elusive throughout his career.
In the end, it is too much for one man to drag Argentina out of their malaise. This was overwhelming, even for him. A Victor Moses penalty had taken Nigeria to second in the group and had Cuneyt Cakir, the referee, been consistent with the call given against Portugal on Monday night, Argentina would have been out.
Rojo headed the ball on to his arm, much as Cedric had done 24 hours earlier against Iran, but after consulting the VAR, Cakir ruled no penalty. It was the right call – Rojo couldn’t get out of the way and there was no intention to handle – but not a harmonious one. The same could have been said of Cedric, too; yet that was given.
Argentina had started so well but as the competition ebbed away from them grew increasingly desperate and haphazard. They were on the brink, no doubt of that. And then: salvation. Cristian Pavon crossed from the right and Rojo simply met it with all he had. He could have taken a touch, could have finessed. He didn’t. He seized the moment, seized the day, seized a place in the second round for Argentina.
There were four minutes of normal time remaining. As cameras zoomed in on the crowd, the players, at the end, everybody seemed to be in tears. Angel Di Maria was sobbing. Argentina had been through an emotional wringer; and this was only the group stage.
Yet there were times in the first-half, and plenty of them, when it must have seemed unfathomable Argentina had got themselves into this state. Their supporters must have been wondering it, maybe the players, too. Argentina are ordinary defensively and Javier Mascherano’s legs have gone, but in attack, focused and firing, they can be sublime.
The introduction, in particular, of Sevilla’s midfielder Banega changed this team and Argentina should have been done by half-time. As well as Messi’s goal, the little genius hit a post and played an exquisite ball through for Gonzalo Higuain that should have amounted to more.
Di Maria was also clear until cynically felled by Leon Balogun, coming to Brighton from Mainz in time for next season. Only the presence of goalkeeper Francis Uzoho stopped that sequence ending with a red card.
Argentina’s World Cup, from the ill-conceived preparation match in politically-charged Jerusalem —that had to be cancelled at short notice — to the obvious tensions around coach Jorge Sampaoli behind the scenes, has been chaotic even by their standards.
It was said that the team for this last roll of the dice in Group D had been selected by the players, not the coach – although some players are more equal than others, one imagines – but they did a decent job.
Initially, this appeared a more balanced, secure Argentina side, starting in goal where Willy Caballero was jettisoned for Franco Armani, a 31-year-old from River Plate, on his international debut. His kicking was wayward but no more so than that of Cabellero, who gifted Croatia their first goal in a traumatic 3-0 defeat, and then failed to recover.
That has been Argentina’s problem at this tournament. Setbacks have had a debilitating effect. Messi missed a penalty against Iceland and it has taken him more than a week to shrug it off; Cabellero was poor for Croatia’s first goal, and then ineffectual for another two.
Big players have shirked responsibility at important times, gone quiet, gone to sleep. It took this, the very real possibility that their World Cup would be over at the group stage, for the real Argentina to show itself.
Argentina could have been three goals up by half-time had they taken their chances and caught the breaks. In the 28th minute, a perfectly-weighted through pass by Messi, found Higuain who outstripped his marker but was thwarted by teenager Uzoho in goal, the young man bravely off his line, saving at his feet and catching a painful blow, knee to head, in the process. Fortunately, he was able to carry on.
In the 32nd minute, a long ball from the back set Di Maria away until Balogun gave up chasing and took up tripping instead. Had Uzoho not been at home he might have gone, instead referee Cakir produced only a yellow card and from the resulting free-kick Messi flighted the ball over the wall and Uzoho got the merest touch to push it on to the far post.
Argentina were playing well, full of confidence, but defensive frailties and the determination of referees to at last address man-handling in the area conspired against them.
Mascherano – past his best and no longer a player Roy Hodgson considered more influential than Messi when distributing his Ballon D’Or votes – had several goes at Balogun as a corner came in, before dragging him to the floor.
Cakir pointed to the spot, the usual mimes of protests resulted, replays showed the right call had been made. Victor Moses stepped up, took two paces and hit a gentle one, only slightly to the right, deftly sending Armani the wrong way. At that point, Messi was on his way home. He has a lot to thank Rojo for; but so do we.