After everything it's experienced in the World Cup thus far, Argentina is through to the knockout stage.
Marcos Rojo's sensational volley off a Gabriel Mercado cross in the 86th minute secured a 2-1 victory for Argentina over Nigeria in Saint Petersburg. That win, coupled with Croatia's 2-1 win over Iceland, secured second place in the group for Argentina and a last-16 date vs. France. Lionel Messi answered his critics with a 14th-minute goal that appeared to do the trick for Argentina, but a Javier Mascherano-conceded penalty allowed Nigeria to provisionally seize the knockout spot through Victor Moses's spot kick.
Argentina, as it has all tournament, struggled to find a rhythm early. Errant passes and a lack of cohesive possession were prevalent, and Nigeria looked the more dangerous of the two. The Super Eagles looked like they'd have a great opportunity at the top of the box on the break, only for Nicolas Otamendi to come up with a last-gasp tackle in the sixth minute.
Argentina's first chance came from Nicolas Tagliafico in the eighth minute, when Ever Banega played him in through the seam on the left-hand side, only for him to put his chance just wide of the left post.
Action picked up on the other end a minute later, when Nigeria threatened off a long throw-in. Musa's speculative drive from outside the area didn't miss the target by much, but it sailed over Franco Armani's goal. The goalkeeper, replacing Willy Caballero after his blunders vs. Croatia, earned his first cap with Argentina on the day.
Argentina finally got the play it was looking for in the 14th minute. Messi received a perfect ball out of the back by Banega, taking it down beautifully and finishing with his off foot, finding the back of the net to give Argentina a 1-0 lead. Given the score at the time in the Iceland-Croatia battle, that goal put Argentina provisionally into second place in the group–enough to go through.
The goal, naturally, had under-fire manager Jorge Sampaoli and Argentina legend Diego Maradona quite pleased.
Messi turned provider in the 27th minute, sending Gonzalo Higuain through with a perfect pass through the seam on the right-hand side, but Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho heroically came off his line to make a sliding stop, taking a blow to the head in the process.
Messi nearly doubled the lead in the 34th minute off a free kick. Angel Di Maria was taken down from behind on a breakaway, getting his feet clipped some 20 yards from goal. Messi stepped up and curled a left-footed kick off the post, with replays confirming that Uzoho got a fingertip to it, making a sensational intervention to push the ball just enough.
Argentina's second half started in disastrous fashion. Mascherano was whistled for a foul on Leon Balogun inside the box on a corner kick, gifting Nigeria a penalty. VAR upheld the call, and Moses converted on the spot kick to make it 1-1 and provisionally send Nigeria back into second place.
Wilfred Ndidi nearly buried Argentina with 20 minutes to go on a 20-yard blast from straightaway, but his chance buzzed over the crossbar, keeping it 1-1, and keeping Argentina in need of just one goal to go back into second.
If Argentina felt hard done by on the Mascherano call, it was perhaps fortune on a later incident involving Rojo. The defender had his arms extended when leaping for a challenge on the ball in the box and it hit off one of them with 15 minutes remaining. A look at video replay did not yield a penalty call, despite Nigeria's fervent protests.
Argentina had the chance it needed in the 80th minute, when Higuain received a cross inside the box, only to redirect his left-footed chance well over the bar. It was the latest chance in a big game that Higuain failed to convert for Argentina, albeit perhaps not as straightforward or simple as some in the past.
Argentina got another chance late, though, and it converted. The goal came from an unlikely source, with Rojo expertly volleying him from the center of the box to make it 2-1 in the 86th minute, sending Argentina back into second place–and into the knockout stage.
For highlights of the other simultaneous Group D finale between Croatia and Iceland, read on here.
Here were the lineups for both teams:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United)
Defenders: William Troost-Ekong (Bursasport), Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Ado Den Haag), Elderson Echiejile (Cercle Brugge KSV), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes FC), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa)
Midfielders: Mikel John Obi (Tianjin Teda), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be'er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino, Italy)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone)
Manager: Gernot Rohr
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani (River Plate), Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres)
Defenders: Marcos Acuña (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Federico Fazio (Roma), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax)
Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di Maria (PSG), Giovani Lo Celso (PSG), Enzo Perez (River Plate), Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)
Forwards: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli