World Cup 2018: Rojo, Messi carry Argentina into pre-quarters; Croatia top Group D
If ever there could be a fairytale written, this would be it, for Argentina’s entry into the pre-quarters was nothing short of a catastrophe that had an happy ending. After a horrendous start against Iceland and a shambolic defeat to Croatia, ‘La Albiceleste‘ stood on the brink of an unexpected exit – their hopes almost over.
Then finally with the world waiting and entire nation pleading, Argentina delieverd a win. Marcos Rojo’s wonderful volley and Leo Messi’s 14th brilliance, helping them edge past Nigeria 2-1 to steal into the knockouts and set up a date with France on Saturday.
Rojo’s goal came four minutes before the final whistle and until then Argentina had failed to fire a single shot on target in the second-half, with Gonzalo Higuain blasting their best opportunity into the sixth stand. The clock had been ticking and one could sense cold air breezing through St. Petersburg, slowly taking over as things began to freeze.
But Rojo broke through into the Nigerian box meeting perhaps Argentina’s first proper cross into the net and the stadium erupted again. Coach Jorge Sampaoli failed to control himself as did Diego Maradona flinging fingers down into the pitch. The South Americans were alive again and they will join Croatia in the last 16.
Meanwhile, Messi stood still, his hands in the air pointed to the sky, thanking Gods unknown. He may have not provided the final moment of glory but it was he, who began this glorious journey – scoring the opener after bringing down a perfect long ball from Ever Banega before slotting it into the right corner well past the stretched hands of Francis Uzoho.
He was everywhere in the first and could have easily scored a second but his curled free-kick in the 33rd minute struck the side-post, while Higuain missed a sitter set up by him.
Nigeria on the other produced nothing substantial and were mostly outplayed by the ‘Little magician‘ in the first-half. But six minutes into the second, they were celebrating a goal. Javier Mascherano had conceded a penalty bringing-down Nigerian defender Leon Balogun, who himself was lucky to avoid a red after pulling Angel Di Maria down, from which Messi hit the post. Victor Moses stepped up and calmly slotted the ball into the centre.
Croatia top Group D
Iceland’s fairy-tale dream that began with a hard-fought draw 1-1 against Argentina came to an abrupt end after their 1-2 defeat against Croatia. The ‘Vikings’ heading home after losing both of their last two matches.
Meanwhile, Croatia topped Group D winning all three matches and now will take on Denmark on June 1.
In a must-win contest, the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup began well, nearly going ahead when Aron Gunnarsson’s curled shot forced Croatian goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic to a full stretch. Then Alfred Finnbogason rattled the post as Croatia found it tough to get going after making nine changes from the side that beat Argentina 3-0.
But Milan Badelj hammered the ball into goal in the 53rd minute and Croatia never looked back since then. They did give Iceland an opportunity to bounce back when Dejan Lovren put out his hand to stop a cross and referee waved to the spot.
Gylfi Sygurdsson stepped up and converted, hitting in the same area he had attempted in the missed penalty against Nigeria. They went to the kitchen sink as the final whistle drew near but Ivan Perisic buried all of their hopes with a shot from outside the box, which rose into the roof-top of the net.
It sent Iceland packing home, their fariry-tale story no longer relevant and a new story was being written thousands of kilometers away, where Argentina overcame their demons to make it to the knockouts.