SAINT PETERSBURG: Argentina rescued their World Cup hopes in dramatic fashion on Tuesday as defender Marcos Rojo scored a stunning volley to snatch a late 2-1 win over Nigeria and set up a last-16 match against France.
Lionel Messi set the two-time winners on their way with his first goal in Russia but Victor Moses equalised from the penalty spot and as time ticked away the increasingly ragged South Americans appeared to be heading home.
But Rojo made a surprise appearance in the box to turn home a cross from Gabriel Mercado with a crisp side-footed volley in the 86th minute to send the Argentine fans in Saint Petersburg, including legendary 1986 World Cup winner Diego Maradona, into raptures.
A highly emotional Maradona rushed to the front of the VIP box where he was watching and gave a one-fingered salute with both hands and shouted an obscene insult.
Maradona later fell unwell and a video emerged of him being helped by two people in his entourage into a chair. Photographs showed the 57-year-old being tended to by parademics, although Argentinian daily Ola reported he later went to his hotel.
Argentina’s escape came after Rojo came close to having a penalty awarded against for handball minutes earlier until he was saved by a controversial VAR review.
“It is marvellous to have won it in this manner. It is a deserved joy, we knew God was with us and wasn’t going to let us go out,” Messi said in quotes on Argentina’s official Twitter account.
“I thank all the fans that are here, for all their sacrifice and to all those in Argentina that were always with us.”
Argentina were held by Iceland in their tournament opener and then humiliated 3-0 by Croatia, putting the 2014 finalists on the brink of a first-round exit.
Croatia will face Denmark in the first knockout round in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday but Nigeria and Euro 2016 surprise package Iceland will head home.
Croatia took the lead thanks to a slick second-half volley by Milan Badelj. Gylfi Sigurdsson equalised from the penalty spot before Perisic struck late.
Croatia were already through to the last 16 and coach Zlatko Dalic rested most of the side that thumped Argentina 3-0, with only captain Luka Modric and the winger Perisic keeping their places.
“Our goal is achieved,” said man-of-the-match Badelj. “We are top of the group and we are ready to compete in the second round of the World Cup.
Earlier, France and Denmark produced the first goalless match of the tournament in front of 78,000 spectators at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Didier Deschamps rested goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and midfielder Paul Pogba among six changes and his side struggled to create any clear-cut chances against a determined Denmark.
Deschamps immediately switched his focus towards what he called the “second competition” after the uninspiring contest.