Argentina rescued their World Cup hopes in dramatic fashion yesterday 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 winners on their 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.
The Manchester United defender had escaped conceding a second penalty for Nigeria minutes earlier after a controversial VAR review.
“It is marvellous to have won it in this manner. It is a deserved joy,” Messi said in quotes on Argentina’s official Twitter account.
“We knew God was with us and wasn’t going to let us go out.
Argentina defender Marcos Rojo celebrates his winner in the World Cup match against Nigeria
“I thank all the fans that are here, for all their sacrifice and to all those in Argentina that were always with us. The shirt of the national team is above all else.”
Argentina were held by Iceland in their tournament opener and then humiliated 3-0 by Croatia, putting the 2014 finalists on the brink of a first-round exit.
Their struggles came after their pre-tournament preparations were wrecked by controversy and poor form, coupled with a reliance on a top-heavy, limited squad.
The Argentine federation was even forced to confirm that Jorge Sampaoli would continue for the final group game amid rumours of a rift between players and coach.
At the drama played out in Saint Petersburg, 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) away in Rostov-on-Don, Croatia snuffed out the challenge of Iceland, scoring late through Ivan Perisic to seal a 2-1 win and complete a perfect group stage.
Croatia will face Denmark in the first knockout round in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday but Nigeria and Euro 2016 surprise package Iceland will head home.