SAINT PETERSBURG. — On a night when Lionel Messi faced the humiliation of a World Cup farewell wrapped up in shame, Argentina refused to be choked by pressure and found a way to live another day by qualifying for the Round of 16 amid a cocktail of both drama and controversy.
Poor Nigeria will have to nurse the wounds of coming so near, yet so far, from a place among the last teams standing as they capitulated, with just minutes remaining in regulation time, to lose this game 1-2.
With Iceland also falling by the same score against Croatia, all the Super Eagles needed was a draw but substitute Odion Ighalo fluffed a chance which, on another day, he would have taken with his eyes closed.
And, once again, VAR was hostile to the Nigerians who probably deserved a penalty, not once but twice, during this contest.
Victor Moses coolly converted the other one that came their way.
Instead, it was Messi and thousands inside the stadium, plus millions of his fans around the world, who were celebrating after the talisman finally came to the party, when his nation needed him the most, and turned on a man-of-the-match show.
His first goal was pure art.
The ball, delightful from Ever Banega, arrived over his shoulder, on the run. Messi watched it onto his left thigh, killed it there, let it drop to his left boot, took a perfect controlling touch and switched it, right.
Kenneth Omeruo, whose job it was to in some way harness the wind at that point, knew he was in trouble. In these moments, it is as if Messi has a way of rendering opponents powerless.
He shot, across goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, and the ball moved obediently into the far corner of Nigeria’s net without further instruction.
A gem of a goal from a gem of a player.
So that’s what we have been missing, that’s what would have disappeared from this World Cup had Argentine lost last night — sunshine, magic, wonder, you name it.
Ultimately, it was a fabulous volley from Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo that propelled Argentina into the final 16, but this was about Messi — this was about our desire for one player to stay.
Save Messi — that is what millions of neutrals desired, even though millions of Africans would argue otherwise.
The world will watch again on Saturday, to see if one man can inspire a nation once more.
“We suffered a lot. There was a lot at stake. It was a huge relief, a relief for all of us. We didn’t think we would suffer this much,” said Messi.
“We have watched every single France game. We follow every game. France is a very good team with skilled individual players. They have very fast players who can really make a difference.
‘’I know what we will have to do. It will be a very tough game, no doubt.”
Coach Jorge Sampaoli paid tribute to his players.
“This victory was because the players were convinced they are excellent players,’’ he said. ‘’Today they were able to win against a very tough opponent.
We had the necessary strength to fight to the very last minute.
‘’The players were really brave and that courage made the second goal possible.”
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr said his team will get better with time.
“We have a very young team who lack some experience, but in four years we’ll be very strong. I want to thank our supporters who have come a long way to be here. Most matches we played in felt like away games. But it’s not about the quantity of supporters but the quality, and I think we have the best ones.” — Agencies.