For nearly two years, Argentina, as one of the world’s great soccer powers, had been largely missing in action. The team stumbled through qualifying and appeared lost in its first two matches in Russia, a disappointing draw with tiny Iceland and a thorough beating from Croatia.
Nigeria, which needed only a draw to advance, was alive. Then as the minutes ticked toward elimination, Messi’s crew recovered, and seized back control of the game。
Then Tuesday(yesterday) night happened. Here, for all but a handful of minutes, was the Argentina with the unstoppable striker, the stifling midfield, and the lightning quick attacks, all of which combined to deliver a thrilling 2-1 win over Nigeria.
Messi, whose heroics in the final game of qualifying saved Argentina last fall, scored in the 14th minute. The goal appeared to wake Argentina from its Russian stupor.
The moment that made it all possible came in the 86th minute, when Marcos Rojo’s volley off a picture-perfect centering pass from Gabriel Mercado, rescued Argentina’s World Cup when it looked as though all was lost.
“A huge relief,”Lionel Messi said when it was over. “We knew it was going to be a difficult afternoon. We didn’t think we were going to suffer as much as we did.”
Rojo’s goal sent the tens of thousands of Argentina’s faithful who had traveled so far north into a wild, deafening celebration, a series of cheers and songs and dance that lasted well into the pale blue St. Petersburg night.
The win, combined with Croatia’s defeat of Iceland, sent Messi and Argentina through to the knockout round, where they will face France. When it all ended 10 minutes after the deciding goal, Argentina’s bench stormed the field as though they were heading back to the final, rather than merely the round of 16.
Now Argentina will take on France, in a match that could have been worthy of a final. ”I know who they are, and I know what we have to do,” Messi said. “It’s going to be a very tough game.”