ST PETERSBURG: Argentina and Lionel Messi recovered from the brink of World Cup disaster with a battling 2-1 victory over Nigeria in St Petersburg which lifted them into the knockout stages of the World Cup finals.
Messi, the centre of controversy and confusion after the opening draw with Iceland and defeat by Croatia, looked more like his old self. He opened the scoring after 13 minutes and also hit a post with a first-half free kick.
But Jorge Sampaoli’s needed an 85th-minute strike from Marcos Rojo to clinch victory and progress after Nigeria had equalised with a Victor Moses penalty early in the second half after Jorge Mascherano had wrestled down Balogun at a corner.
Hence the double former World Cup winners will play France in the round of 16 in Kazan on Saturday with both shape and confidence somewhat restored after they had risked a first-round exit.
Sampaoli had made five changes. Willy Caballero, whose blunder gifted Croatia their opening goal in the 3-0 loss last week, and Sergio Aguero were two of the fall guys while Rojo, Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega were among those brought in – and it was Banega, making his first start in Russia, who produced the assist for Messi’s 14th-minute opener.
The Sevilla midfielder lofted a beautiful pass over Kenneth Omeruo, though from there it was all Messi. He cushioned the ball on his thigh and created space with a deft left-footed touch before firing into the far corner with his right.
It sent the crowd, including Diego Maradona, into delirium and at that point the two-time winners were heading through thanks to Messi’s magic.
The Barcelona forward looked in the mood, with a terrific pass into Gonzalo Higuain’s path deserving more than the striker’s weak attempted chip over Francis Uzoho.
Messi looked capable of doing it by himself regardless and he almost scored again with a free-kick that Uzoho’s fingertips pushed onto the post.
Sampaoli’s side were 45 minutes from progression but they were back on the verge of going out shortly after the resumption.
They were architects of their own downfall too. Three Argentinian defenders converged on the ball and conceded a needless corner, from which Javier Mascherano, with both of his hands on Leon Balogun at the near post, was adjudged to have hauled his man down.
Moses confidently placed the spot-kick to the opposite way Argentina’s debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani dived and Nigeria were back in pole position for the group’s runners-up berth.
Sampaoli called for Cristian Pavon, who made a positive impression, and Maximiliano Meza, whose impact was far less great, as Aguero and Paulo Dybala waited on the bench.
A second Nigeria goal would have killed off Argentina’s hopes and ex-Watford striker Odion Ighalo spurned a glorious opportunity when volleying wide.
The Super Eagles wanted a spot-kick for a handball against Rojo prior to the ball dropping to Igahlo, and though VAR looked at the incident again, no penalty was given as the defender headed against his arm.
Aguero then came on, but not for Higuain, who stabbed a clear opening way over.
Ighalo saw another try saved by Armani and Oghenekaro Etebo’s free-kick went into the side netting as Nigeria missed chances to seal their progression.
And it proved costly as Rojo, of all people, won it four minutes from time.
He was way out of position when Mercardo’s cross came into the box, but all of Argentina was glad he was there as Rojo steered a first-time finish into the corner to spare his country’s blushes.