When Lionel Messi singlehandedly dragged Argentina to the 2018 World Cup with a hat trick on the final day of qualification, his manager, Jorge Sampaoli, turned philosophical: “Soccer, the World Cup, could not be left without Messi,” Sampaoli said after a 3-1 victory over Ecuador.
Little did he know that his words would apply again eight months later.
The World Cup could not be left without Messi, and it isn’t. Not yet, anyway. Argentina advanced to the Round of 16 Tuesday in dramatic fashion, with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, and thanks in part to Croatia’s 2-1 win over Iceland.
But whereas Messi qualified for Russia despite his teammates, this time he needed a little bit of help. And he got it.
With the game knotted at 1-1, via an early Messi goal and a second-half Nigeria penalty, Argentina was crashing toward elimination. A dysfunctional few weeks were fizzling out into disgrace. Then Marcos Rojo – of all people, Marcos Rojo! – booked a Round of 16 date with France with an 86th-minute volley:
Messi jumped on Rojo’s back. His teammates followed. The tens of thousands of Argentineans in St. Petersburg bounced and screamed, delirious. Millions more emulated them back home. All of their World Cup dreams will live to see a few more days.
Tuesday’s first half had been Messi’s. It was the performance the soccer world had been waiting for.
Through two games in Russia, Messi had covered less ground per 90 minutes than any other outfield player at the World Cup. And he had been poor. He had missed a penalty against Iceland. He had been invisible against Croatia.
But his apparent lackadaisicalness is part of his brilliance. Because it makes the explosions all the more difficult to defend.
Messi was stationary, then he was lightning quick, darting in behind the Nigeria defense for Argentina’s opener. Ever Banega put a pass right on his thigh. Messi somehow took it in stride, took a second lovely touch, and buried the third across Nigerian keeper Francis Uzoho:
LIONEL MESSI GETS THE OPENER!
What a ball by Banega, what a touch and finish by Messi. Argentina lead Nigeria 1-0. pic.twitter.com/ONbGOjKVkg
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
Messi wasn’t dominant in the first half, but he was nonetheless special. He would later have a free kick tipped onto the post. He slipped in a glorious through-ball for Gonzalo Higuain, who couldn’t find a way past Uzoho.
He did an excellent job of finding himself in dangerous positions high up the field, and had Argentina in the lead at halftime.
Ever Banega was pivotal for Argentina
Of the many farcical aspects of Argentina’s disastrous start to the World Cup, Banega’s exclusion from the starting lineup against Iceland was one of the more inexplicable. Sampaoli started two defensive-minded holding midfielders against a team that didn’t intend on doing much attacking. They were redundant. Lucas Biglia, the second beside Javier Mascherano, was useless. Banega’s playmaking ability was sorely missed.
On Tuesday, it was immeasurably valuable. And you could argue it was the difference between the two games – at least in the first half. It, along with Messi, was certainly the difference between 0-0 and 1-0 at halftime.
Banega sprung Messi for the goal with a pinpoint 50-yard pass. He also played Angel Di Maria through. Di Maria was taken down by a borderline red-card foul that was punished with yellow. From the resulting free kick, Messi hit the woodwork.
Banega was pivotal for Argentina in midfield. He was the reason La Albiceleste had both control and chances.
But Argentina’s defense always looked like it had a mistake in it. And sure enough …
On a Nigeria corner early in the second half, Mascherano had his arms wrapped around Leon Balogun at the near post. It was the type of penalty box grappling that often gets ignored. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a foul. The referee pointed to the spot, and Victor Moses converted:
The Super Eagles are awarded a penalty and Moses buries it to make it 1-1. pic.twitter.com/L2OtdqOqG2
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
Almost immediately, Argentina flipped into desperation mode. It needed another goal. Nigeria, though, seemed just as likely to get one. The Super Eagles felt they should have had a chance to go ahead themselves.
Did Nigeria deserve a second penalty?
With 15 minutes remaining, Argentina had stagnated. And Rojo, before scoring the winner, almost completed the self-destruction when he completely flubbed a clearance. His attempted header instead had Nigeria howling for a handball.
Untung wasit bilang gak aktif. “Ball to hand bukan hand to ball,” Oke sihap jantungan fans argentina ini pasti pic.twitter.com/9lxp6po1gj
— Abe (@AbeHedly) June 26, 2018
But the referee ignored Nigeria’s protests, both before and after a pitchside video review. He was probably correct to do so. And Rojo, after narrowly avoiding embarrassment, then became the hero.
Rojo the unlikely – but fitting – hero
A Gabriel Mercado cross to Rojo’s right foot was pretty low on the list of potential Argentinean World Cup saviors. But such has been the absurdity of Argentina’s 2018 tournament. It has featured reports of infighting and mutinies and coups d’etat.
So of course Rojo, a left-footed center back, snuck into the box and won the game with his right foot. Of course Messi had him to thank.
Messi stood almost motionless on the pitch after the game, staring up into the crowd. Sampaoli, interestingly, was nowhere to be found. But teammates and other staffers were their to embrace their star. Messi returned the favor. Pressure, finally, had been lifted. Relieved smiles, finally, came freely.
And one of the most remarkable group stage campaigns in recent World Cup history ended, naturally, in a remarkable way.
– – – – – – –
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• All the crazy scenarios for World Cup group deciders
• Egyptian goalkeeper sets record as oldest player in World Cup
• Why Spain’s, Iran’s late goals were so important
• Egyptian commentator dies of heart attack after team’s World Cup loss