Argentina brought back their veterans to the starting XI in a must-win 2018 Fifa World Cup Group D clash against Nigeria and the decision paid off in some style as the Albiceleste progressed to the last 16 in Saint Petersburg, Russia Tuesday.
Thanks to crucial strikes from talismanic captain Lionel Messi and Manchester United man Marcos Rojo, the two-time world champion edged the Super Eagles 2-1 in what was a dramatic win.
This result saw the Albiceleste qualify for the Round of 16 as Group D runners up.
Croatia progressed as Group D champion after beating debutant Iceland 2-1, despite largely fielding a second-string side.
Argentina will now face France in the last 16 while Croatia will take on Denmark for a quarter-final berth.
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli made changes to the starting XI that took the field against Croatia.
In came winger Angel di Maria, midfield enforcer Ever Banega, Rojo and striker Gonzalo Higuain.
With an average age of 30 years and 190 days, this is the oldest ever Argentina XI in a World Cup finals.
All the experience came to good use as Messi gave Argentina the lead from a delightful pass by Banega.
Messi’s strike is the 100th goal scored at this World Cup.
In the process, Messi also scored in a 100th different venue for both club and country.
Rojo then bagged the all-important winner in the 86th minute, sparking wild celebrations in the Argentina dugout, and it was largely down to a brilliant cross by Gabriel Mercado.
The two strikes were sandwiched by a Victor Moses penalty for Nigeria.
Earlier, Argentina, who had their backs against the wall on the eve of the clash, started the game in different fashion, compared to their previous matches in this tournament, at a jam-packed Saint Petersburg Stadium.
The Albiceleste were not playing the perfect game by any stretch of the imagination but at least they were desperate.
Whenever they lost the ball, or missed a pass, the Argentines instantly regained possession through their high pressing.
So, this weekend...June 26, 2018
France vs Argentina
Uruguay vs Portugal
Spain vs Russia
Croatia vs Denmark
If you've got plans, cancel them. #WorldCup
In the 13th minute, Javier Mascherano misplaced a pass towards the path of Kelechi Iheanacho but got it back with his trademark sliding tackle.
Such desperation was also evident among the other Argentine players in the first half.
In the very next minute, the whole stadium erupted in joy as Messi finally opened his account in the Russia World Cup.
This was the moment the Argentine fans were all waiting for.
And what a delightful goal it was.
Receiving a wonderful pass from Banega on the right side of the box, the Barcelona legend controlled the ball beautifully with his thigh before placing it past Nigeria goalkeeper Fransic Uzoho with his weaker right foot.
The goal was Messi’s first in this World Cup and it was significant in many ways.
He joined compatriots Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta in scoring in three different World Cup finals.
After that, the Albiceleste dominated the first half, backed by the boisterous Argentine fans inside the stadium, who were singing Messi’s name throughout the game.
Messi then unleashed a wonderful through pass to Higuain, who failed to beat Uzoho.
Minutes later, Argentina got a free-kick outside the box on the left flank after Di Maria was fouled by Super Eagles defender Leon Balogun in the 32nd minute.
Although it was not in Messi’s comfort zone, the Rosario lad still produced a moment of genius, beating the custodian, only to be denied by the far post.
Lionel Messi is the first player to score a World Cup goal in his teens, 20s and 30s. 😳 pic.twitter.com/XncHQxy9u3— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 26, 2018
Just after the start of the second half however, came a crucial point in the game.
Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was of the opinion that Mascherano had brought down Balogun inside the box.
Cakir thus awarded the Nigerians a penalty, after confirmation from the Video Assistant Referee.
Moses converted the spot-kick without fuss.