Lionel Messi expressed his “huge relief” at seeing Argentina advance to the World Cup’s last 16 thanks to Marcos Rojo’s late winner against Nigeria.
The two-time champions were less than five minutes away from elimination when Manchester United defender Rojo became their unlikely saviour, volleying home Gabriel Mercado’s cross to seal a 2-1 success.
Having drawn with Iceland and been comprehensively beaten by Croatia, Argentina were in must-win territory and had been on course for an early exit when Victor Moses’ penalty cancelled out Messi’s brilliant opener.
However, Rojo’s volley spared their blushes and booked a clash with France in the next phase.
“We have suffered a lot because it was a difficult situation,” Messi told a post-match press conference. “There was a lot at stake and of course it was a huge relief for all of us.
“It was a difficult match because of the results before and many other things that have been said. We knew it was going to be difficult but fortunately we have achieved our aim.
“We didn’t think that we were going to suffer as much as we have. We were quite confident that we would be able to go through and fortunately it became true.”
Messi was in danger of leaving Russia without making any positive contribution until he delivered a timely reminder of his brilliance.
Collecting a long pass from Ever Banega on his thigh in the 14th minute, he knocked the ball into space before firing home Argentina’s opener with his unfavoured right foot.
Though Messi may have been upstaged by Rojo in the end, coach Jorge Sampaoli was delighted to see his star man come to the fore.
“The most important thing for Leo, I think, is his human side; it’s amazing,” he said.
“He’s a person who feels, who cries, who suffers, who’s happy when Argentina wins. I know him – I’ve seen him happy, sad, in crisis times, in positive times.
“Many people say that Leo does not enjoy playing for Argentina but I don’t agree. He enjoys it and suffers like all the other players.. That makes him even bigger.”
In the end it was the Nigerian players who were left suffering.
Yet the Super Eagles felt Rojo should have been punished for handball in the box just prior to his winner, with referee Cuneyt Cakir ignoring their protests after consulting a video replay.
“I don’t understand how that wasn’t a penalty,” said Nigeria skipper John Obi Mikel.
“For me, it was a clear handball. If you look at the game yesterday, Portugal, that wasn’t even close to this. This was even worse – very open. He headed the ball and it hit his hand.
“Maybe the referee has given the first penalty, he doesn’t want to give the second one. But a penalty is a penalty. If it’s a penalty, you can still give a penalty.
“We’ve seen it again in the dressing room, it was a clear penalty. There wasn’t any way the referee could not give that. He looked at the VAR. I asked him, ‘Did it hit the hand?’ He said ‘Yes’. But why it’s not a penalty…he said he doesn’t know.”
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