Saint Petersburg : Lionel Messi admitted to having survived the most nerve-wracking 90 minutes of his career as Marcus Rojo’s stunning finish four minutes kept his and Argentina’s World Cup hopes alive with a 2-1 win over Nigeria to reach the last 16.
Messi’s first goal of the tournament got the two-time winners off to a perfect start in Saint Petersburg, but Victor Moses’s 51st minute penalty had Jorge Sampaoli’s men heading for a humiliating group stage exit until Rojo’s late intervention.
“I don’t remember such suffering,” said Messi when asked if it was the most tense match of his career.
“It was due to the situation and what we were playing for.”
Rojo had escaped conceding a second Nigerian penalty after a controversial VAR review before he thundered home Gabriel Mercado’s cross to send the under-fire Sampaoli running down the sidelines amid wild scenes of celebration.
“After the penalty we got a little nervous and worried about not getting through,” said Sampaoli.
“We were obviously delighted at the end. The players played with their heart, they are rebels, they have achieved a very important victory looking to the future.”
Messi missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Iceland and was largely bypassed in a 3-0 thrashing by Croatia that saw calls for Sampaoli to be sacked before their final group game.
However, Argentina avoided the abyss by the skin of their teeth to fight another day against the highly-fancied French in Kazan on Saturday.
Sampaoli made five changes from the Croatia game, and his plan to use Ever Banega to help free up Messi worked to perfection early on.
The Sevilla playmaker’s brilliant pass over the top of the Nigerian defence picked out Messi’s run perfectly and, after cushioning the ball on his thigh, he erased the frustrations of his World Cup so far with an arrowed right-foot finish into the far corner.
“We need to make passes to Leo so he can create chances,” added Sampaoli. “If not we suffer, we know we have the best player in the world and we have to benefit from that.
“It is for that reason I said the Croatia match was our fault not his.”