Marcos Rojo’s late World Cup heroics in St Petersburg against Nigeria prompted huge joy and relief for Gonzalo Higuain and his Argentina team-mates.
Jorge Sampaoli’s men were staring at elimination four minutes from time at Krestovsky Stadium when Manchester United defender Rojo emerged in a penalty area stacked with attacking talent to steer home a superb right-footed volley.
Captain Lionel Messi gave Argentina a 14th-minute lead, stylishly breaking his duck at Russia 2018 on the end of Ever Banega’s exquisite pass, but Victor Moses equalised from the penalty spot early in the second half to set up the frantic finale.
The extensive fallout from last week’s humbling 3-0 loss to Croatia included reports of dressing room in-fighting and a plot to overthrow Sampaoli.
In that context, Higuain, who failed to put a glorious chance of his own on target, felt the taste of victory was particularly sweet.
“When Marcos scored it was a huge joy and a big relief because I believe we deserved, in every moment, to qualify to the last 16,” he said.
“The dressing room was very happy. After all, we fought, we ran and all we played against a very physical team like Nigeria. We are proud of the game we played.
“Now we know we’ll start the knockout stages and we’ll try to do it the best way possible. It wasn’t a heavy burden, it’s a huge joy. This team deserved this after all that was said.”
@G_Higuain : “Estoy feliz por la clasificación. La cancha explotó de alegría y estoy contento por eso”. pic.twitter.com/7QddCPVhJW
— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) June 26, 2018
Rojo might have ended up being the villain before his decisive strike, when he headed a clearance against his own arm but survived a VAR review for Nigeria’s penalty claim .
“I didn’t think it was penalty,” Higuain said. “Marcos hits it with the head and then it touches his hand.”
Pipping Nigeria to second place in Group D means a last-16 clash against France – the country of Higuain’s berth – is up next.
“They will be a very tough rival and we must stay focused,” he added. “I think if we play like today we have a chance to get through.
“I never faced France, it will be the first time, and at a decisive stage in a knockout stage. We hope we can do things right.”