For almost two years, 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.
What a mess!!!

But now with Nigeria

Then Tuesday 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 on a night when there was no margin for error.

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. Sitting in a box midway up the stands, the legendary Diego Maradona leapt in celebration then flipped a double-bird toward the field at who knows what.

“Now the Cup starts for us,” Rojo said.

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.

Ángel Di María cried. Javier Mascherano, who played much of the second half with blood caked on his face, hugged every one of his teammates. There was a joyous grin across Messi’s face seemingly for the first time in two weeks.

“Our players play with their heart,” the embattled Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “They are true rebels.”

The Nigerians collapsed to the turf. A draw would have sent them through, and referee Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey very nearly handed them a second penalty kick late in the second half. It would have provided a golden opportunity for a goal that would have almost guaranteed them advancement. Instead, they ended up standing in shock on the sideline, staring at Argentina celebrating.

“We did everything we could,” said the Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel. “In the second half we pushed and pushed. We got the goal, we played well. It just wasn’t to be.”

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 Barcelona star had been shut out in the first two games, even missing a penalty kick against Iceland. Cutting through Nigeria’s defense, he collected Éver Banega’s perfect ball from the midfield line, letting it deflect off his thigh before he fired his shot inside the far post.

It was a moment of relief as much as it was delirium for the tens of thousands of blue-and-white striped fans who somehow managed to corral most of the tickets here.

The Nigerians, who had looked so deft and athletic in their 2-0 win over Iceland last week, had no answers through the first half. It was as if Nigeria had expected the bickering, disinterested and ineffectual version of Argentina to show up, the group that had rebelled against their coach and seemingly quit against Croatia. Instead, it was the Argentina of old that took the field, and there was nothing Nigeria could do about it.

Until, that is, Argentina gave them a chance. Three minutes into the second half, Mascherano, Argentina’s veteran defender, who has looked every day of his 34 years, took down Leon Balogun with a rugby tackle in the penalty area on a corner kick.

A minute later Victor Moses easily slid his penalty kick past Franco Armani. Nigeria, which needed only a draw to advance, was alive. The shaky, unpredictable Argentina was back, missing on passes and whining to the referee for penalties and yellow cards.

Then as the minutes ticked toward elimination, Messi’s crew recovered, and seized back control of the game, but Nigeria still nearly had its chance to put the game away when it appeared Rojo had committed a hand ball. With 15 minutes to play, he headed the ball into his arm as he defended a centering pass.

Cakir blew his whistle and went to the sideline to check the replay. Rarely has the site of a middle-aged man watching television caused so much tension. Cakir ruled against a penalty.

Mikel said he did not understand how Cakir did not award the penalty and never got an explanation. “It was clear,” he said. “The ball hit his hand.”

When Gonzalo Higuaín missed an open shot from 8 yards with 10 minutes to play, it looked like it was not going to be Argentina’s night. Then came Mercado’s charge down the right side, a rocket to the front of the goal, and Rojo slicing in to meet it.

Sampaoli, whose team has reportedly been in a state of revolt in recent days, tried just about everything on this night. Clad in a blazer and high-fashion jeans for the first two matches, he showed up on the sidelines for the third game dressed like a middle school gym teacher in a track suit. He sat the Manchester City star Sergio Agüero, and he replaced goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero, who gifted Croatia a goal, with Armani.

Now Argentina will take on France, in a match that could have been worthy of a final. They will need the very best version of Argentina to get past the French.

“I know who they are, and I know what we have to do,” Messi said. “It’s going to be a very tough game.”

Here’s how Argentina survived Nigeria and advanced to the round of 16:

90’ + 3: Messi Down

Messi cut down and stays there, milking clock. It’s deafening in St. Petersburg now.

90’ + 2: Argentina Starts the Celebration

The Argentines in the stands are standing and dancing and waving their shirts over their heads. They can’t believe what’s happened in the last five minutes.

90’ +1: Stoppage Time

Four minutes of added time.

91’: Mascherano’s Bloody Day

Mascherano’s bloody face is sure going to look great in the photos from this. No one will remember his blunder to surrender the penalty.

90’: Nigeria Brings Offense

Nigeria sends on a striker, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, to try to steal one back. But it sure feels over.

Croatia Helps

A second Croatia goal in Rostov! That’ll finish Iceland, so if Argentina hangs on, they’ll have done it.

87’: GOAL! Argentina Saved

Marcos Rojo, the Manchester United defender, suddenly appears at the spot a step ahead of Victor Moses and side-foots home an inch-perfect cross. Argentina, at this moment, are through! Argentines have burst into tears in the stands in a flow of emotion. Messi now chasing every ball up front in a one-man high press. He can taste the round of 16.

The Stakes

An Argentina goal here sends them through. No goal here sends them out.

85’: Etebo Juuuust Misses

Etebo rattles the net — but the outside of it. And Argentina scrambles upfield again .....

84’: Dangerous Free Kick for Nigeria

After an Ighalo shot is stoned in close by Armani, Nigeria recovers and wins a free kick at the top of the box. Looks like Etebo will take it.

82’: Argentina Gets a Corner

Argentina pushes it up and wins a corner. Eight minutes to go in normal time. Mascherano now bleeding from above his left eye. Another lousy corner by Argentina. So wasteful.

80’: Aguero On for Argentina

Here’s Aguero now, in for Tagliafico — the defender. Higuain stays on and then misses a sitter at the spot! Cut to Maradona, who can’t bear to watch.
Higuain has a reputation for misses like that; he could have won the 2014 World Cup final but failed to convert a couple of chances, and Germany found a winner in extra time. It looks like the same mojo is at work again.

80’: Cross Goes Nowhere

Threading the needle again. Messi somehow keeps the ball in a scrum, and it pops out. Crossed back in, it misses everyone, though, and goes out to Nigeria.

77’ No Penalty on Argentina

Cakir has seen the review and says no. And he’s given a goal kick, not a corner, so Argentina gets off scot-free there. Wow.
On a second angle, perhaps the one Cakir saw, Rojo heads the ball right onto his arm. The referee clearly decided that was inadvertent.

76’: Hand Ball?

Argentina making a mess now. They give the ball away, creating a 2-on-2. Then Rojo clearly handles trying to clear. The referee gives a corner, but Cakir has a voice in his ear telling him to take a look. And here he goes.

74’: Iceland Creates Even More Stress

Penalty for Iceland in the Croatia game. They tie the score, 1-1.

73’: Argentina Wasting Time

Two wasteful balls in a row from Argentina: a corner that hits the first man, and a ball on the left that’s fumbled over the end line. They don’t have time to waste here.

72’: Di Maria Goes Off

There’s your Argentina sub: Di Maria off, Meza on. Expect a bit more urgency from them now.

72’: Nigeria Strikes, but Misses

Wilfred Ndidi fires a long-range missile over the top bar, but he had a wide open look.

70’: Argentina Needs Something

Di Maria kicks the ball directly out of bounds again. Argentina backtracks. No bones about this: they need a goal.

68’: Mascherano Banged Up

Mascherano has marks on his face that look like he got stepped on or something. He looks terrible. But he’s not making any sign asking for treatment or to come off.

66’: Di Maria Also Not a Factor

Di Maria loses a hopeful ball out of bounds on the left. He hasn’t done much tonight, either. Sampaoli probably needs some fresh legs to restart his team’s engine here.

63’: Higuain Not a Factor

A cross cut behind for Higuain misses him by five yards; he’s really not had much of an impact tonight. You wonder when Dybala, or Aguero, will be sent out to try to do … something.

62’: Better Movement for Argentina

Pavon makes an immediate impact, breaking free on the right and curling in a low cross that’s sent over for a corner. Argentina takes it quick, but then wastes the chance with an off-target shot.
Matthew Futterman: Needing a goal, how long does Argentina wait to bring Aguero on?

60’: Nigeria Hassles Messi

Nigeria has gone back to the Surround Messi strategy now. Someone else may have to crack this open. A moment ago, he was caught in a square of four Nigerians.
Argentina makes a switch: Pavon for Perez.

55’: Argentina Looking for Inspiration

Argentina’s fans have broken out in loud songs to try to revive their heroes as their World Cup hangs in the balance here.

53’: Help From Croatia

There’s a lifeline for Argentina in Rostov: Croatia has scored. That positions them to win the group going away, but it also means an Argentina goal could send them through,

51’: GOAL! Nigeria Equalizes

Moses strokes it in as the goalkeeper dives to his right. TIE GAME!

50’: Big Chance for Nigeria

Cakir’s sticking with his call. Penalty. Wow. Big moment. Victor Moses stands over the penalty while a shoving match breaks out on the right.

49’ Penalty to Nigeria!

Mascherano is caught pulling down a player and Cakir acts immediately.It was Balogun he was holding there, but he sure went down easy. This could be ripe for a review.

46’: Messi the Leader

Interesting moments at halftime. Messi has a long discussion with Mascherano in the huddle, then calls the team together in a huddle and gives the team talk. Messi always seems like more than a quiet leader, so to see him instructing everyone is notable.
Nigeria, by the way, sends Odion Ighalo, a former Premier League forward now playing in China, on for Iheanacho, who took that kick to the head before halftime.

The Standings

Where do we stand in the standings? These results would get Argentina through. But an Iceland goal puts them ahead of Argentina by virtue of goal difference, so then Argentina would need another. Goals by either Nigeria or Croatia complicate the math even more.

The Numbers

Argentina finishes the first half with 61 percent possession, a helpful figure and a fair one. But it’s their fight that’s remarkable so far; the perception that they quit against Croatia has clearly sparked something in their pride.

Halftime: It’s All Argentina So Far

Messi scores one and could have had two with the free kick off the post. That’s a far better half for Argentina — surely their most determined, most focused of the World Cup. And they’re halfway to a job done in St. Petersburg: up by 1-0, and in control for the most part.

45’ + 2: One More Chance for Nigeria

Mercado brings down Musa way out on the left side, and Nigeria will get one last chance this half to serve a ball in to its far taller players.

44’: Iheanacho Goes Down

Rojo with an acrobatic, flying spin clearance in the six with Iheanacho draped all over him. The Nigerian lays on the turf holding his head, but it looked incidental. (Note: incidental kicks to the face hurt too.)

44’: Coasting into Halftime

Argentina content to get to halftime here — if the Nigerians would just give them the ball back for a minute.

42’: Etebo Flails a Shot

Musa’s throw off the clearance is good one, and the ball falls to Etebo at the top of the area. He whacks at it like he’s never taken a shot, though, and his attempt on goal goes out for a throw-in — the worst kind of indignity for a professional.
Matthew Futterman: It’s as if Nigeria was certain that bad Argentina was going to show up and now that precise, mechanical Argentina has arrived, Nigeria doesn’t have an answer.

41’: Armani Clears One

Armani forced out of his area to win a foot race with Musa. That’s not a comfortable sight if you’re Argentine, but he wins it by a half step and fires the ball clear.

39’: Messi to Di Maria … Blocked

Messi and Higuain with some great footwork in tight spaces to spring across the top of the area, but without a clean look Messi slides it on to Di Maria. He waits a beat too long to shoot though, and the chance dies in the ‘thump’ of a blocked shot.

36’: Nigeria Free Kick

A Mascherano foul gives Nigeria the chance to loft in a free kick, but a header sends it straight up and Armani is there to collect when it comes down.

34’: Messi Hits the Post

Messi hits the post! A few inches from 2-0. Oh boy, has he come to play tonight. Uzoho was well-beaten there from the shot out high on the left, but it pings the right post and bounces away. On the replay, it looks like Uzoho got a fingertip or two on that. But not sure it would have gone in clean anyway.

33’: Free Kick Coming

That’s a bad break for Argentina — Di Maria win in clear on goal — and a good one for Nigeria, which stays at 11 men. But it’s not over: Messi will take the free kick from 20 yards.

32’: Yellow for Nigeria

Another SUPER lead ball from Banega springs Di Maria behind the defense, but Balogun clips his heels from behind!! That could have been a red — it sure looked like the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity by the last man — but Cakir quickly pulls the yellow.

31’: Will Argentina Keep Pressing?

If this score line holds, and the same is true in the other (currently scoreless) game in the group, Argentina would be through. But given how their tournament has gone, expect Argentina to keep pressing for a second, for a third, for more, until they know for sure they’re in the knockouts.

29’: Nigeria’s Counterattack Goes Nowhere

A lead-footed touch from Higuain breaks up a promising attack in the middle, but Nigeria’s long ball to try to spring a counter goes straight to Armani in the Argentina end.

27’: Another Chance for Argentina

Super ball from Messi to lead Higuain — it looked like he was in! But Uzoho bravely charges and takes one in the face for the team to smother the chance.

24’: Spreading It Out

Argentina smartly works the ball side the side a bit, trying to stretch the Nigerians a bit wider and maybe open some room in the middle for Messi and Co. to work. Messi, by the way, just became the first player to score a World Cup goal in his teens, his 20s and his 30s. Quite a feat. He also joins Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta as the only Argentines to score in three World Cups.
Matthew Futterman: Argentina seems to be using the “best defense is a good offense” approach. They’ve been a bit wobbly and sloppy back there all tournament and that has continued tonight, but Nigeria has not been able to make them pay or really even control the ball at all in the attacking third.

22’: Argentina Keeps Up Pressure

Nigeria’s Uzuho, their 19-year-old goalkeeper, shows his inexperience after his team wins a throw in its own end, sends it to him to blast long, and instead he sends it directly out into the stands — giving it right back to Argentina. The pressure will continue.

20’: Nigeria’s Youth Showing

Oghenekaro Etebo almost begging for a yellow now; he shoved down Di Maria at midfield, didn’t like the call, squared up with Cakir and then threw the ball away. Cakir takes mercy on the young player, though, and gives him the “OK, we’re not going to be doing this son” talk, and spares him the yellow. Nigeria’s youth showed a bit there, but the veteran ref let them off.

18’: Relief for Argentina

That goal was really the first space Messi has enjoyed all night, and he punished Nigeria for allowing it. The relief seems almost palpable. As if they know they can do this now, that it might be all right if they can just keep this up.

17’: DiMaria Steps Up

DiMaria takes a whack to the ankle to win a free kick way out on the left, about 10 yards from the end line. He’ll take it himself.
Matthew Futterman: By my estimate, fully 80 percent of this crowd is wearing some form of light blue and white. The Argentina base is like the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful. Give them credit, they travel. And now that they have a lead they seem to have no intention of going home.

14’: GOAL! Messi Gives Argentina 1-0 Lead

That’s the Messi that showed up to drag them to the World Cup, and here he is again to save them. A gorgeous ball over the top from Banega finds him at the top of the area and he brings it down deftly and buries it far post.
Messi drops to his knees to celebrate. Maradona is giving thanks in prayer. Delirium in St. Petersburg. Oh, and the touch he used to bring that ball down? It belongs in a museum.

13’: Mascherano Gets Bailed Out

Brutal giveaway from Mascherano — that’s twice now — but he scrambles back to smother Iheanacho on the first chance and is bailed out by a teammate on the second. Perhaps the fact that Argentina still relies on Javier Mascherano in central defense ought to be a bigger issue than whether Messi cares or not. (Spoiler: He does. A lot.)

11’: No Breathing Room

Messi takes, turns two, gives it up, wants it back. He’s trying, but it’s hard to get breathing room with a Nigerian everywhere he turns.

10’: Messi Shows More Energy

Messi on the left now, pressing. He’s got a bit more fire than in the Croatia game. That’s a good sign, even if the attack he tries falters there.

9’: Musa Takes a Shot

Ahmed Musa takes a poke as he’s sliding at the top of the area, but his undercut shot sails high. A bit close for comfort, maybe, but no real danger.

9’: Messi Marked

Messi is playing a little more centrally early, probably to ensure he gets a little more of the ball than he did against Croatia. But Nigeria is wise to this and is taking no chances. There’s a player within five yards of him at all times.

7’: Nigeria Fires First

Oghenekaro Etebo shoots from just outside the penalty area but a defender gets a leg on it.

1’: Getting Messi Involved

It takes less than 30 seconds for Argentina to find Messi, and it’s clear already the Nigerians have been instructed not to mess about: they immediately drop all 10 field players behind the ball. If Argentina is going to score, they’re going to have to pry them open.
Matthew Futterman: I’m not sure what to read into this, but Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina coach who has apparently been beating back a player uprising, has opted to coach this game in a track suit. He had tight jeans and a blazer in the first match, and then the tight jeans and short sleeves in the second, and now is dressed like a middle school gym teacher. I guess if he is headed to termination, he wants to be comfortable.

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