Messi, Rojo rescue Argentina from humiliating early exit

Marcos Rojo’s stunning volley in the 86th minute for a 2-1 win over Nigeria took Argentina to the pre-quarterfinals.

Lionel Messi admitted to having survived the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of his career.   -  AFP

Argentina rescued its World Cup hopes in dramatic fashion on Tuesday as defender Marcos Rojo scored a stunning volley to snatch a late 2-1 win over Nigeria and set up a last-16 match against France.

Lionel Messi set the two-time winner on its way with his first goal in Russia but Victor Moses equalised from the penalty spot and as time ticked away the increasingly ragged South Americans appeared to be heading home. But Rojo made a surprise appearance in the box to turn home a cross from Gabriel Mercado from the right with a crisp side-footed volley in the 86th minute to send the Argentine fans in Saint Petersburg — including the watching Diego Maradona — into raptures.

Match Centre

Lionel Messi admitted to having survived the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of his career.

“I don't remember such suffering,” said Messi when asked if it was the most tense match of his career. “It was due to the situation and what we were playing for.”

‘Nervous’

Rojo had escaped conceding a second Nigerian penalty after a controversial VAR review before he thundered home Gabriel Mercado's cross to send the under-fire Sampaoli running down the sidelines amid wild scenes of celebration. “After the penalty we got a little nervous and worried about not getting through,” said Sampaoli.

“We were obviously delighted at the end. The players played with their heart, they are rebels, they have achieved a very important victory looking to the future.”

Messi missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Iceland and was largely bypassed in a 3-0 thrashing by Croatia that saw calls for Sampaoli to be sacked before its final group game. However, Argentina avoided the abyss by the skin of its teeth to fight another day against the highly-fancied French in Kazan on Saturday.

IN PICTURES: Nigeria 1-2 Argentina

Sampaoli made five changes from the Croatia game, and his plan to use Ever Banega to help free up Messi worked to perfection early on. The Sevilla playmaker's brilliant pass over the top of the Nigerian defence picked out Messi's run perfectly and, after cushioning the ball on his thigh, he erased the frustrations of his World Cup so far with an arrowed right-foot finish into the far corner.

“We need to make passes to Leo so he can create chances,” added Sampaoli. “If not we suffer, we know we have the best player in the world and we have to benefit from that. It is for that reason I said the Croatia match was our fault not his.”

Messi liberated

Croatia captain Luka Modric claimed his side “cut off Messi” in Nizhny Novgorod five nights ago, but he was back to close to his Barcelona best at the heart of all Argentina's best moves in a positive first 45 minutes.

WATCH: Highlights - Nigeria vs Argentina

Higuain just could not flick the ball beyond the onrushing Francis Uzoho from a defence splitting pass before Uzoho then tipped a Messi free-kick onto the post. Argentina was rocked at the start of the second period, though, when Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed to the spot when Javier Mascherano tangled with Oghenekaro Etebo at a corner. Moses confidently stepped up to send Franco Armani the wrong way on his international debut and Argentina back to square one.

‘Clear penalty’

There was further VAR controversy when Nigeria was denied a second penalty as Rojo headed onto his own arm before substitute Odion Ighalo fired wide. “I don't understand how that wasn't a penalty. For me it was a clear penalty,” said Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel.

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“Maybe the referee has given the first one and he doesn't want to give the second one.”

Ighalo missed another glorious chance when he shot too close to Armani and Nigeria was made to pay for its profligacy from the most unlikely source. Sergio Aguero had been thrown on from the bench to join Messi and Higuain in attack, but it was Rojo who produced a striker's finish on his weaker right foot to spark delirious scenes of celebration among the tens of thousands of Argentines in the stands.

(Video courtesy: FIFA TV)

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