Argentina live to fight another day in the World Cup as they edged past Nigeria 2-1, but how they quite came back from the brink few people will be able to answer.
Four minutes from elimination, and four minutes from one of the game’s all-time greats probable international retirement.
Looking destined only for the plane home, this looked for all the world like Lionel Messi’s curtain call.
With 86 minutes on the clock, Manchester United’s defender Marcos Rojo swept in on the volley as the two-time winners went through to the last 16 by the skin of their teeth.
If Messi had disappeared from view so far this World Cup, he was back in his full and unmissable glory. It appeared, on the international stage, for one final time. That was until an unlikely hero rode to the rescue.
He hadn’t scored with his last 22 shots in World Cup games and his last success came against Nigeria four years ago nearly to the day. He made up for lost time.
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Don’t ignore Ever Banega’s incredible pass, but the Barcelona man’s touch, his trademark race clear and precise finish was the player we all wanted to see. The 100th goal of the World Cup had a fitting scorer.
He nearly had another. Messi’s free-kick well touched onto the post by Francis Uzoho, the next goal appeared to be all-important. When it arrived, it came as a crushing blow to those in blue and white.
Some Argentina supporters have questioned the decision to take Javier Mascherano to Russia let alone start him. Penny for their thoughts as the 34-year-old imploded at the start of the second half.
First, he gave away a needless corner before hauling over Balogun inside the box. It went to VAR, but his prayers weren’t answered. Nigeria’s Victor Moses rolled in the penalty and Argentina were back on the brink.
Odion Ighalo could have should have nailed their coffin. The former Watford strike’s complaints about handball were checked, but he should have been looking at himself after dragging wide when composure would have sent the Super Eagles through.
To add to the drama, news came through of Iceland’s leveller against Croatia but that didn’t disrupt the Argentinian remit.
Sergio Aguero was thrown on and if only Gonzalo Higuain’s chance had fallen to him. With a rotten recent record for his country, the Juventus striker got it horribly wrong.
It needed a defender to show him how it was done. Rojo raced forward, hit a fine volley and from nowhere Argentina played their get out of jail free card.
Nigeria 1-2 Argentina
Argentina have qualified from the World Cup group stages for the fourth consecutive tournament (2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018).
Argentina are unbeaten in their last 40 World Cup games when opening the scoring (W35 D5), since a 1-3 defeat against Germany in 1958.
Nigeria have now been eliminated in the group stages in three of their last four World Cup campaigns (2002, 2010 and 2018).
Nigeria have lost all six of their games against South American sides at the World Cup, with five of those coming at the hands of Argentina (in 1994, 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018).
Lionel Messi’s first half goal for Argentina ended a run of 662 minutes without a goal in the World Cup – his last goal came in June 2014, also against Nigeria.
Lionel Messi (2006, 2014 and 2018) is the third Argentina player to have scored in three different World Cup tournaments, alongside Diego Maradona (1982, 1986 and 1994) and Gabriel Batistuta (1994, 1998 and 2002).
50% of Lionel Messi’s goals at the World Cup have been scored against Nigeria (3/6), including each of his last three in the competition.
Argentina’s opener in the 14th minute was the 100th goal scored at the 2018 World Cup.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi completed seven dribbles in this match – those seven dribbles took him to 107 completed at the World Cup, the most of any player since 1966, overtaking Diego Maradona, who previously had the most with 105.
Marcos Rojo’s goal was his second for Argentina at the World Cup, while his previous one also came against Nigeria – 1,462 days ago at the 2014 tournament.
The average age of Argentina’s starting XI was 30 years and 189 days; their oldest for a World Cup game in competition history.
Iceland 1-2 Croatia
Croatia have won three consecutive World Cup matches for the first time.
Iceland have now lost five of their seven matches against Croatia (W1 D1).
Ivan Perisic has scored three World Cup goals for Croatia – only Davor Suker (6) has scored more.
Gylfi Sigurdsson’s penalty for Iceland was the 17th scored at the 2018 World Cup, equalling the most penalties scored in a single World Cup tournament (also 17 in 1998).
Croatia scored with both of their shots on target in this match.
Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson became the second player to have scored and missed a penalty at the 2018 World Cup, after Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Milan Badelj scored only his second goal for Croatia, with this his first since scoring against Malta in September 2011 during qualifying for Euro 2012.
Croatia midfielder Mateo Kovacic completed 78 of his 79 passes attempted in this game (98.7%); the best percentage of any player to start the match.
10 of Croatia’s last 11 goals at the World Cup have been scored in the second half.
Croatia made nine changes, the most by a team in a World Cup match since England made nine for their match against Costa Rica in 2014.