SAINT PETERSBURG: Lionel Messi believes higher powers were at work in Argentina’s dramatic win over Nigeria in their Group D World Cup game. “We knew God was with us and wasn’t going to let us go out,” an emotional Messi said after the match on Tuesday.
Messi admitted to having survived the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of his career as Marcus Rojo’s stunning finish four minutes kept his and Argentina’s hopes alive with a 2-1 win over Nigeria to reach the last 16.
Messi’s first goal of the tournament got the two-time winners off to a perfect start in Saint Petersburg, but Victor Moses’s 51st-minute penalty had Jorge Sampaoli’s men heading for a humiliating group stage exit until Rojo’s late intervention.
“I don’t remember such suffering,” said Messi when asked if it was the tensest match of his career.
“It was due to the situation and what we were playing for.”
Rojo had escaped conceding a second Nigerian penalty after a controversial VAR review before he thundered home Gabriel Mercado’s cross to send the under-fire Sampaoli running down the sidelines amid wild scenes of celebration.
“After the penalty, we got a little nervous and worried about not getting through,” said Sampaoli.
“We were obviously delighted at the end. The players played with their heart, they are rebels, they have achieved a very important victory looking to the future.”
Messi missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Iceland and was largely bypassed in a 3-0 thrashing by Croatia that saw calls for Sampaoli to be sacked before their final group game.
However, Argentina avoided the abyss by the skin of their teeth to fight another day against the highly-fancied French in Kazan on Saturday.
Sampaoli made five changes from the Croatia game, and his plan to use Ever Banega to help free up Messi worked to perfection early on.
The Sevilla playmaker’s brilliant pass over the top of the Nigerian defence picked out Messi’s run perfectly and, after cushioning the ball on his thigh, he erased the frustrations of his World Cup so far with an arrowed right-foot finish into the far corner.
“We need to make passes to Leo so he can create chances,” added Sampaoli. “If not we suffer, we know we have the best player in the world and we have to benefit from that.
“It is for that reason I said the Croatia match was our fault, not his.”
Croatia captain Luka Modric claimed his side “cut off Messi” in Nizhny Novgorod five nights ago, but he was back to close to his Barcelona best at the heart of all Argentina’s best moves in a positive first 45 minutes.
Higuain just could not flick the ball beyond the onrushing Francis Uzoho from a defence-splitting pass before Uzoho then tipped a Messi free-kick onto the post.
Argentina were rocked at the start of the second period, though, when Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed to the spot when Javier Mascherano tangled with Oghenekaro Etebo at a corner.
Moses confidently stepped up to send Franco Armani the wrong way on his international debut and Argentina back to square one.
There was further VAR controversy when Nigeria were denied a second penalty as Rojo headed onto his own arm before substitute Odion Ighalo fired wide.
“I don’t understand how that wasn’t a penalty. For me it was a clear penalty,” said Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel.”Maybe the referee has given the first one and he doesn’t want to give the second one.”
Sergio Aguero had been thrown on from the bench to join Messi and Higuain in the attack, but it was Rojo who produced a striker’s finish on his weaker right foot to spark delirious scenes of celebration among the tens of thousands of Argentines in the stands.