As the day started, Argentina sat firmly at the bottom of Group D. Lionel Messi appeared to be on the way out of yet another major tournament. However as fate would have it, La Albiceleste wasn't going out without a fight.
A dramatic late winner off the right boot of Marcos Rojo allowed Argentina to narrowly defeat Nigeria -- thus punching its ticket to the knockout stage.
Following an opening day draw against Iceland, and a 3-0 beat-down at the hands of Croatia, Argentina appeared to be dead in the water. Sporting a goal differential of -3, Argentina had to beat Nigeria and hope for a Iceland draw/loss if it were to advance.
The narrative of the World Cup for this Argentina squad has been a rough one. The squad has been beset by underwhelming play, a locker room full of strife -- and even a potential mutiny. Oh...and there's also the weight of an entire country sitting upon Messi's shoulders.
Through the first two group games, the world was asking what happened to Messi. His team looked disjointed. The worlds best player was lacking the world class quality we've all come to know and love from him. A missed penalty kick against Iceland -- and a disappearing act in the Croatia game -- had people doubting Messi. If Argentina flamed out in the group stage, his reputation would suffer. And then, nearly 15 minutes into their do-or-die game, Messi finally appeared:
LIONEL MESSI GETS THE OPENER!
What a ball by Banega, what a touch and finish by Messi. Argentina lead Nigeria 1-0. pic.twitter.com/ONbGOjKVkg
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
A beautifully played ball by Banega was expertly handled by Messi. With the most deft of touches, Messi was able to nestle the ball into the far corner for the game's opening score.
Soon after the restart, Nigeria leveled the game following a questionable penalty was called on Javier Mascherano. To make matters worse for the South Americans, Iceland would soon level the score against Croatia. An Iceland victory would almost surely result in Argentina's tournament ending.
With Argentina pushing for another goal, Nigeria were able to counter and procure chances that nearly saw them claim the lead. With 10 minutes remaining, a cross by the Super Eagles was met with a headed clearance by Rojo. Rojo's initial header came down and hit off his arm -- ultimately triggering a VAR review. The referee reviewed the video for less than five seconds, and deemed the play to be accidental. No penalty kick was awarded.
From there, Argentina took full advantage:
MARCOS ROJO PUTS ARGENTINA AHEAD! pic.twitter.com/3yrzeq7hSu
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 26, 2018
The same man that got away with a giving up a potential penalty kick scored a stunning goal in the 86th minute. Rojo's marvelous volley would give Argentina the points necessary to advance to the knockout rounds (contingent on an Iceland draw or loss). Within moments, Croatia nicked a goal.
With Iceland now facing defeat, Argentina had to see out the last four minutes of stoppage time. Nigeria only got the ball past midfield a handful of times after the Rojo strike, and ultimately never posed a threat to Argentine dreams. The final whistle blew, and Argentina had survived.
Argentina's reward for finishing second in their group? A meeting with Group C winners, France.
Nothing will be easy for the South Americans. France sports one of the top squads at the World Cup. It's a roster chock-full of quality across the board. But on this day, the only thing that matters is that Argentina is alive to fight another day.
Messi has been given another lifeline. Essentially, this is now another opportunity to further his case as the G.O.A.T (and secure that elusive World Cup title). Had the Argentine's gone out with a whimper, Messi may have suffered the most. In what is likely his final days with the national team, Messi finally regained his smile. Advancing past France is no easy task. However, Messi should feel a little less pressure going against one of the best teams. If Argentina is able to defeat Les Bleus, the world may be gifted its ultimate football dream:
A battle for the title of the G.O.A.T.
Messi v. Ronaldo
Now that, that would be fun.