Wednesday 18 July 2018

Rojo rocket sees Argentina avoid humiliating exit

Nigeria 1 Argentina 2

Marcos Rojo fires home the winner for Argentina. Photo: Getty Images
Marcos Rojo fires home the winner for Argentina. Photo: Getty Images

Jonathan Liew in St Petersburg

To see the Argentina bench explode onto the pitch at the end, the players tearfully embracing in the centre-circle, it felt like they had won the World Cup.

In fact, they had just escaped a humiliating elimination - just four minutes away from going home in shame.

Argentina's Lionel Messi. Photo: Getty Images
Argentina's Lionel Messi. Photo: Getty Images

One unlikely swing of Marcos Rojo's right boot won the game for them, setting up a last-16 showdown with France and starting a party that will go on in St Petersburg all night.

Lionel Messi was at the heart of the celebrations at the end, hugging every team-mate, substitute and staff member, except of course manager Jorge Sampaoli, waving to the tens of thousands of Argentina fans, who were singing his name.

Glorious

Rojo's glorious volley turned screeches of anguish and derision into screams of ecstasy. The Argentinian bench flooded onto the pitch in raptures.

On the touchline, Sampaoli lost all control. Even if they go on to win the World Cup, it's hard to imagine they will celebrate as wildly and as noisily as this.

Meanwhile, at the centre of everything, a vortex of stillness at the centre of the hurricane swirling around him, stood Messi, giving silent thanks.

Though Messi had not provided the final flourish, and indeed had looked downright ordinary for much of the second half, this was his catharsis as much as anyone's.

It was he who had given a final team talk in the tunnel, after Sampaoli had already taken his place in the dugout.

Nigeria's Ahmed Musa clears the ball under pressure from Argentina's Enzo Perez. Photo: Getty Images
Nigeria's Ahmed Musa clears the ball under pressure from Argentina's Enzo Perez. Photo: Getty Images

It was he who had first given Argentina hope with one of the goals of the tournament. And though this was a shared triumph - insofar as four points from three ropey games can be considered a triumph - somehow the glory was his alone.

He got the man-of-the-match award, of course he did. It was his name being sung, his face adorning the banners draped all around the circumference of the stadium.

And in their pleas were not so much a celebration as an appellation, not so much a call to action as a plea for divine inspiration.

What is a god, after all, if not someone who you don't know, can't control, can't explain, but may - if you're exceptionally nice - just do you a massive favour?

Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain and Nigeria's William Troost-Ekong compete for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain and Nigeria's William Troost-Ekong compete for the ball. Photo: Getty Images

You had to feel for Nigeria. This was their fifth meeting with Argentina in six World Cup finals, and all five have now gone the same way.

The likes of Wilfred Ndidi and Victor Moses deserved more for their heroic efforts. They had fought their way back into the game, and seemingly a place in the last 16.

Their desolation should not be forgotten in the rush to laud a team who they frankly had the measure of for large parts.

For Sampaoli, a vindication of sorts. After his curious experiment against Croatia, he had made five changes, switching Argentina back to a 4-3-3, but an all-action, fiercely pressing 4-3-3: in a way, a synthesis of Sampaolismo and Messismo.

Treat

And at the outset, it worked a treat. There is a school of thought that initially at least, you should always have Messi up against the full-back - or in this case, the left-wing back Bryan Idowu.

Not only are they less likely to simply to muscle him off the ball, but because the defender is so petrified and paralysed by the threat of Messi, that you also neuter him, and therefore an entire flank of the pitch as an attacking threat.

The other major change was to install Ever Banega at the base of midfield, and within 14 minutes he had repaid Sampaoli handsomely.

On the halfway line, he sent the ball into the heavens, as if hoping for a brush with the divine. But that only came when it fell to earth.

Surging past Kenneth Omeruo, following the ball in flight, Messi produced a holy trinity of touches.

One to bring it down. Two to set it up. Three to smash the ball with his right foot. Francis Uzoho tried to grasp at the ball as it flew past him. But he forgot that only Messi saves.

Messi wheeled away with his arms outstretched. The Argentinians leapt as one. There was no longer anything to be frightened of.

In the stands, Diego Maradona crossed himself, gave thanks, and looked to the sky. You couldn't help but feel he was looking in the wrong direction.

And for that first half, Messi was everywhere. It was his marvellous through ball to Gonzalo Higuain, who didn't quite have the pace to get there.

A free-kick against the post. Making runs his team-mates didn't even see.

Just before half-time, Banega slipped through Angel Di Maria, Leon Balogun clipped Di Maria, and was shown only a yellow card.

What a moment that turned out to be. Just three minutes into the second half, the 6ft 3in Mainz centre-half Balogun drifted towards the near post;

Javier Mascherano first gave him a cuddle and then, like a vituperative lover, flung him to the ground.

As referee Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey pointed at the spot, Mascherano appealed furiously for a VAR retrial, which served only to broadcast his foul to an even wider audience, this time more clearly and in slow motion.

The penalty from Moses was cool, measured and unflustered: everything so far this game had been not.

Nigeria had barely produced anything of note all game, but this was all that was required to reawaken Argentina's demons.

Croatia helped them out by taking the lead against Iceland, but by now Argentina's main adversaries were themselves.

There were stray touches, miscontrolled passes, crosses not beating the first man. Nicolas Tagliafico dribbled the ball straight out of play. The Argentinian fans were beginning to barrack.

The excellent Ndidi fired a shot just over from 20 yards that really would have settled things.

Seeking greater pace and width, Sampaoli brought on Cristian Pavon and Maxi Meza.

Yet Argentina still looked just as likely to concede as score.

With 10 minutes remaining, Higuain fired over a glorious chance, and that felt like it. But then came Rojo, firing the ball home from perhaps Argentina's first decent cross of the game, from Gabriel Mercado on the right.

It was Argentina's first shot on target in the second half, richly undeserved, and yet in hindsight had felt totally natural.

After all the strife and stress, after all the feuding and revolt, and against all the odds. Argentina were miraculously still standing.

High in the gods, Maradona leaned over the ledge and flicked his middle fingers down at the pitch.

Again, you suspect he was aiming in the wrong direction.

© Independent News Service

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