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SPORTS | 26-06-2018 19:16

Albiceleste progress thanks to a goal from unlikeliest of sources

Gripping 2-1 win in St. Petersburg seals clash in the next round against France, thanks to defender Marcos Rojo's late strike.

Given the almost surreal chaos that has summed up Argentina's first two weeks at the 2018 World Cup, it was fitting that the goal that finally grabbed the nation a place in the last 16 came from the unlikeliest of sources.

Step forward Marcos Rojo, the defender who was drafted into the Albiceleste squad after a full year of inactivity due to injury. He stepped forward when it most counted with a sublime volley – hit with his weaker right foot, no less – to drag his team kicking and screaming out of Group D. As a piece of football fiction, not even the late maestros Roberto Fontanarrosa or Osvaldo Soriano would have dared to pen such a dramatic, incongruous ending to this story.

A gripping 2-1 win in St. Petersburg sealed a clash in the next round against France at the expense of Nigeria, who will justifiably consider themselves desperately unlucky to be on the plane home from Russia. On a high after keeping their (and Argentina's) World Cup hopes alive with a victory over Iceland, the Super Eagles were never daunted by the dormant star names in the Albiceleste line-up and fought across 90 tense minutes for their place at the party.

It took something special to make the breakthrough, and Rosario-born pair Ever Banega and Lionel Messi were up to the task. Childhood friends from their time slogging away in the city's infant football divisions prior to Leo's move to Barcelona, they enjoy a privileged understanding, to the extent that Banega's failure to become Messi's regular partner in the national team is puzzling.

Tuesday's clash was the Sevilla midfielder's first start in Russia and Banega took full advantage with a masterly display alongside the forever committed but ageing Javier Mascherano, capped with a perfectly weighted ball over the top of Nigeria's defence that was controlled and finished with equal perfection by Argentina's No. 10, captain and talisman.

That should have been the starting point for a comfortable victory. Argentina pushed their advantage after the opener and watched Gonzalo Higuaín – again, painfully awkward and off the pace in the Albiceleste shirt – squander a one-on-one opportunity while Messi rattled the post with a free-kick that was inches away from squeezing inside Francis Uzoho's far post.

But just when it looked like the stars were aligning in Argentina's favour, a soft penalty conceded by Mascherano allowed Victor Moses the chance to level from the spot; not even Franco Armani, the much-requested River Plate keeper who enjoyed an exemplary debut under intense pressure, could repel the coolest of finishes from the winger.

In a depressingly familiar turn of events, that setback was the cue for cool heads to drop in Sampaoli's ranks. Having appeared so assured in possession during the first 50 minutes Argentina began to rush and panic when the occasion called for a measured response to potential disaster. Higuaín spooned a wonderful chance over the bar while Armani came up big with a point-blank save as an entire nation's collective heart stopped beating.

Ragged and disorganised again, elimination looked imminent for Messi and his beleaguered colleagues. 

But cometh the hour, cometh the man. This time, just this once, it was not Messi who stepped up to dig his side out of a hole, but rather Rojo, a staple of the 2014 World Cup finalist team who happened to find himself in the right place at the right time and add his own chapter to Argentina's rich football history.

In the context of near-anarchy, constant press operations and a stream of other bizarre occurrences it was the fitting end to the nation's Group D campaign, a stranger-than-fiction goal that keeps them with their head just above water for a few more days yet.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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