Leo Messi and Argentina, apparently down and out and squabbling among themselves, pulled their act together in yet another last-ditch drama at the 2018 World Cup to qualify for the knockout stages.
Captain Messi led the fight relentlessly as Argentina emerged from St Petersburg with a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in Group D which sent them on to a second round clash with France.
Messi, an apparently depressed focus of doubt and controversy after Argentina’s opening draw with Iceland and defeat by Croatia, looked more like his old self. He opened the scoring after 13 minutes and also hit a post with a first-half free kick.
But Jorge Sampaoli’s men needed a remarkable 85th-minute strike from Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo to clinch victory and progress after Nigeria had equalised with a Victor Moses penalty early in the second half after Jorge Mascherano had wrestled down Leon Balogun.
Argentina’s fans, including Diego Maradona, celebrated long and loud on their way out of the Krestovsky Island stadium and back into Peter the Great’s capital. Their performance was far from perfect but they offered a resounding answer to their critics in terms of commitment to the cause.
Croatia confirmed their place at the top of Group D with a 2-1 win over Iceland who, after that bright start against Argentina, had almost run themselves to standstill.
The Croats won match and group despite undertaking half a dozen changes, both to rest some players and protect others from collecting second yellow cards since bookings will not be ‘wiped’ until after the quarter-finals. Croatia will now play Group C runners-up Denmark.
Iceland commanded much of the first half but Croatia retaliated after the interval. Milan Badelj hit the bar then scored. Iceland battled back. Sverri Ingi Ingason headed against the crossbar before Gyli Sigurdsson equalised from a penalty after handball by Dejan Lovren.
The effort had worn down the Icelanders, however. They could not raise themselves for one last assault and, instead, it was Croatia who snatched a late winner from Perisic.
Earlier in the day France and Denmark cruised gently onwards with the finals’ first goalless draw after a record 38 matches. The outcome of a barely competitive match confirmed the rivals in first and second places respectively.
The tepid proceedings were interrupted only by rare spurts of attacking enthusiasm. Christian Eriksen came closest to a Danish goal with a low free kick in the second half which keeper Steve Mandanda had to save at second attempt.
The only French threats were delivered late in the second half by Nabi Fekir, on as substitute for Antoine Griezmann. First he thrashed an angled drive into the side net then he drew a sharp diving save from Kasper Schmeichel.
Both coaches expressed satisfaction on having achieved their goals. But whereas reaching the round of 16 had been the target for Denmark boss Age Hareide, French coach Didier Deschamp has been looking further. As he said: “Now we start climbing.”
Australia, who could have exerted pressure on Denmark, failed to do so by crashing 2-0 to homeward-bound Peru in Sochi. Paolo Guerrero, Peru’s veteran captain who had obtained a stay of judgment from the Swiss Federal Court over his doping ban, was his team’s hero on his last appearance in the finals at 34.
Guerrero’s run and cross created the opening first-half goal for Andre Carillo and he scored the second himself five minutes into the second half. Peru and their fans, who had brought so much happy entertainment to these finals, could at least take pride in the manner of their departure.