St. Petersburg: A late goal from Marcos Rojo gave Argentina a 2-1 triumph over Nigeria in their final Group D match here on Tuesday as the two-time champions entered the FIFA World Cup pre-quarterfinals.
Rojo scored the winner for Argentina in the 86th minute after Victor Moses’ penalty conversion in the 51st minute had cancelled out Lionel Messi’s strike in the 14th minute.
Following the win, Argentina have four points in total and they are second in the table, behind Croatia, who have nine points. The other two teams in the group, Nigeria (three points) and Iceland (one point) have crashed out of the tournament.
Argentina, who were on the brink of elimination after playing a draw against Iceland before a disastrous 0-3 defeat to Croatia in their first two matches, started the match against Nigeria with one point in their bag. They knew that despite a win against Nigeria, who were also in contention, their spot in the Round-of-16 is not guaranteed as Croatia, who had already qualified, played Iceland.
Argentina head coach Jorge Sampaoli, who had got a lot of stick for his formation of the team in the first two matches, fielded a classic 4-4-2 formation, featuring wholesale changes to their starting 11 comparing with the game against Croatia when they lost 0-3.
Argentina showed a lot of urgency, both up front and at the back as they began to prowl inside the Nigerian box from the start. Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria pressed high on Nigeria’s box as they looked to make the best of their first appearances in the starting XI.
It took only 14 minutes for the Argentines to break the deadlock. Messi controlled with his thigh a long-range aerial ball from the centre of the pitch from Ever Banega before barging into the box and firing to the left corner of the net despite being pushed towards the right side by Kenneth Omeruo. Banega, who was not there in the starting XIs so far, had already repaid Sampaoli’s faith.
Messi then provided a delectable bass from the right with a cross which put Gonzalo Higuain on one-one-one situation with goalkeeper Francis Uzoho but the Juventus centre-forward couldn’t overcome the Nigerian goalminder in the 27th minute.
The Argentina captain almost doubled the lead when Angel Di Maria won a free kick 25 yards from the Nigerian goal on the left for Argentina in the 33rd minute after being fouled by Leon Balogun. Messi’s left-footed shot hit the post after Francis Uzoho made a left-handed touch.
Both sides didn’t create a lot of chances during the rest of time in the first half, with Nigeria hardly testing Argentinian goalkeeper Franco Armani, who as brought into the playing XI in place of Willy Caballero.
Four minutes into the second half, Nigeria were awarded a penalty after veteran holding midfielder Mascherano was penalised for holding Balogun inside the box while defending a corner. Chelsea winger Moses fired the spot-kick to the left as Armani dived to the wrong side.
Argentina lacked control in the middle of the pitch and Nigeria’s confidence got higher and higher as they tested the former’s resolves with several incursions inside the box.
Armani was later tested by a piledriver from Wilfred Ndidi from 25 yards out as the ball went over the cross-bar. Another chance came Nigeria’s way as Odion Ighalo missed a golden opportunity to score on the volley after Rojo’s header fell on his shoulder and moved towards the African attacker. Seeing the ball way off target, Ighalo later appealed for a handball penalty but the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) thought it otherwise in the 75th minute.
Nigeria’s hopes fizzled in the 87th minute when Gabriel Mercado galloped down the right flank and sent a cross to the middle of the box. Rojo met the cross on the volley as his right-footed strike sent the ball to the right corner of the net to give Argentina the 2-1 lead.
Afterwards, Argentina, somehow, managed to hand on to their lead as they secured a spot in the second round.