Even Lionel Messi, who scored the opening goal in the 14th minute and then hit a post, was upstaged as Manchester United defender Rojo became the toast of Argentina with his dramatic and decisive strike after Victor Moses had equalised for Nigeria.
Jorge Sampaoli and his men knew only victory would take them through, with a draw enough to allow Nigeria to join Croatia in the knockout stages. Having drawn with Iceland and lost to Croatia in humiliating fashion, it was not just their place in the competition at stake, but national pride too.
This game also raised the intriguing prospect of becoming Messi’s last hurrah, the final World Cup game for a man who was 31 last week and had retired from international football once before. Messi looked abject against Croatia, as did many of his team-mates, but he set about this game with the sort of purpose he seems to display more for his club than country.
Barcelona fans have seen it all before of course, but too infrequently have Argentina’s supporters seen their talisman reproduce that form on the world stage. But in the first 35 minutes he went through his full repertoire of tricks, flicks and darting runs — and produced results too.
His goal was quite brilliant, as he ran on to Ever Banega’s long ball from the Argentina half. Messi’s first touch took down a dropping ball on his thigh expertly, his second put it into his path, and his third was an unstoppable shot across goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and into the far corner of goal. Game on.
Messi did not stop there. He slid a delightful ball through for Gonzago Higuain, only for Uzoho to dive bravely at the big striker’s feet and get injured in the process. Messi was clearly in the mood, and when Argentina won a free kick 25 yards from goal, there was no doubt who would take it. Messi’s shot was all but perfect, only allowing Uzoho to get the faintest of touches with his fingertips to deflect the ball on to the far post.
Nigeria, by contrast, did not manage an effort on target until first-half stoppage time, and it looked like Gornot Rohr’s young side had been overwhelmed by the atmosphere in the St Petersburg Stadium, which was overwhelmingly dominated by Argentina’s noisy fans.
But they were silenced five minutes into the second half when Nigeria equalised. It was a needless foul from Javier Mascherano, the man who was widely believed to have led a players’ coup against Sampaoli.
It was rumoured that Messi and Mascherano even picked the team and tactics, but the former Liverpool and Barcelona defender certainly picked the wrong moment to wrestle Nigerian defender Leon Balogun to the ground. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir pointed straight to the penalty spot and Moses stepped up to send Franco Armani the wrong way.
Suddenly Argentina were again in danger of going home and nerves kicked in. Passes went astray and Nigeria suddenly grew in confidence, sensing a winning goal of their own. It almost came when Wilfred Ndidi fired over the bar after a flowing move, and then Argentina had a let-off when Cakir, assisted by the VAR officials, decided Rojo had handled the ball accidentally as it flew off his head.
Sampaoli sent on his subs, including Sergio Aguero, but still Argentina could not find a way through. Higuain had a golden chance with nine minutes remaining when the ball landed at his feet 12 yards from goal but the Juventus striker ballooned the ball high over the bar.
Nigeria were still dangerous on the break and Odion Ighalo almost scored before Oghenakaro Etebo fired a free-kick on to the roof of the net.
And with time ticking away, and Argentina’s chances of staying in Russia receding, Rojo arrived unexpectedly to meet a swinging cross from the right by Gabriel Mercado, and volley it past Uzoho from 15 yards to set a last 16 clash with France on Saturday.
The noise, which had been intense all night, reached record levels as Argentina’s fans celebrated as if they had won the World Cup. At the final whistle, while Nigeria’s players sank to their knees in the knowledge they were going home, most of Argentina’s players hugged each other in delight. But not Messi, who went over to the match officials to shake hands politely before consoling some of his opponents.
Up in the stands, Diego Maradona celebrated too, although there was sad scenes as the Argentina legend took ill after the game. The country’s greatest player, possibly the greatest of all time, once won the World Cup for Argentina almost on his own through his incredible talent and willpower. With Messi in their side, and the determination they showed last night, would you bet against them doing it again?
Afterwords Messi said: “We were confident we were going to win. It is marvellous to have won it in this manner. We knew God was with us and wasn’t going to let us go out.
“The shirt of the national team is above all else.”
3-5-2 Uzoho 7; Omeruo 6, Ekong 6, Balogun 6; Moses 7, Ndidi 6, Mikel 7, Etebo 7, Idowu 6; Iheanacho 6, Musa 7
Ighalo for Ihenacho 71, Iwobi for Omeruo 89, Nwankwo for Musa 90.
Armani 7; Mercado 6, Otamendi 6, Tagliafico 6, Rojo 7; Banega 6, Mascherano 6, Perez 6, Di Maria 7; Messi 8, Higuain 6.
Pavon for Perez 60, Meza for Di Maria 72, Aguero for Taglifico 80.
Cuneyt Cakir, Turkey.
Last 16: The story so far
France v Argentina, Kazan Arena
Uruguay v Portugal, Fisht Olympic Stadium, 7pm
Spain v Russia, Luzhniki Stadium, 3pm
Croatia v Denmark, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, 7pm