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Argentina Clinch Last 16 Place With Late Rojo Goal

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 26: Marcos Rojo of Argentina celebrates with teammate Lionel Messi after scoring his team's second goal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group D match between Nigeria and Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium on June 26, 2018 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Marcos Rojo volleyed home a Gabriel Mercado cross in the closing minutes to seal a 2-1 win and send Argentina through to the last 16.

Delirious celebrations followed the full-time whistle as Argentina knew the win was enough to pip Nigeria to second place if they beat them on the night and Iceland didn’t win.

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The two-time winners didn’t waste any time in getting going and Lionel Messi gave La Albiceleste the lead with a quarter of an hour gone after latching onto a perfectly weighted Ever Banega pass over the Nigerian defence; what followed was simply beautiful. The five-time Balon d’Or winner took the ball down on his left thigh before touching the ball away from the defender and into his stride. With his unfavoured right foot, he fizzed the ball back across goal and into the far top corner of the goal. 2017/2018’s top scorer in European football raced away to celebrate with the Argentine fans by the corner flag and his teammates soon joined him as he sank to his knees. A weight had seemed to be elevated from his shoulders.

Playing out wide on the right, similarly to the role his took up at Barcelona under Luis Enrique, Messi was now resembling the player he does in the blue and red of the Spanish champions; beating players for fun and linking up play with strike partners Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria.

The Argentine captain was in the mood and the width of a post away from doubling the lead when his free-kick from 20-yards-out was tipped onto the woodwork spectacularly by Francis Uzoho in the Nigerian goal.

Just six minutes inside the second half, Javier Mascherano was adjudged to have wrestled Leon Balogun in the box from a corner and rightly penalised. Chelsea’s Victor Moses equalized from the spot, sending Franco Armani the wrong way.

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A lacklustre Argentina were on the verge of an embarrassing exit, before Manchester United defender Rojo surged into the area to place Gabriel Mercado’s cross into the bottom corner.

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Lionel Messi, who was the focal point throughout, jumped on Rojo’s back as he sprinted away in delirious celebration, joined by the entire Argentina bench in the corner.

Given Messi will be 35 during the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, victory here has at least staved off a miserable end to what could well be his last chance to win the tournament.

They will face Group C winners France in the last 16 in Kazan on Saturday, while Group D winners Croatia, who secured top spot by beating Iceland 2-1, play Denmark.

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