Messi, Argentina clinch berth in knockout round
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Lionel Messi and Argentina finally got things going at the World Cup.
Messi scored an exquisite 14th-minute goal to give the two-time champions the lead in a must-win game against Nigeria on Tuesday, but it wasn’t until Marcos Rojo’s 86th-minute strike that Argentina was assured of a place in the round of 16 with a 2-1 victory.
Victor Moses scored from the penalty spot in the 51st minute for Nigeria, putting Argentina in danger of being eliminated without winning a match in Russia.
It took an unlikely goal by Rojo — a center back — to save Argentina with a cushioned volley into the corner.
The win gave the Argentines second place in Group D and allowed the soccer-mad nation to forget about the 3-0 loss to Croatia last week that sparked days of soul-searching within the squad and back home.
Argentina will play France in the last 16 in Kazan on Saturday, keeping alive Messi’s quest for a first world title. He might have retired from international soccer for a second time — and for good this time — if it wasn’t for Rojo’s goal.
Messi’s teammates poured off the bench to celebrate with him after the final whistle, forming a circle around him. Messi exchanged a long hug with teammate Javier Mascherano, who clinched him tightly.
While Gonzalo Higuain cried nearby, Messi clinched his fist as he turned toward the Argentina fans.
Messi’s name adorned the back of most of the Argentina jerseys that dominated St. Petersburg ahead of the game, and received the biggest roar when the teams were read out.
He kicked the ball out of play with his first touch, was tackled with his next, but then he started to put on a show.
Messi’s 65th international goal owed as much to Ever Banega’s long, driven pass over the defense as the forward’s exquisite control on his left thigh, another touch with his left foot, and then a cool right-footed finish into the corner. As Messi fell to his knees and pointed his fingers upward in celebration before being mobbed by teammates, Argentina great Diego Maradona — sitting in a corporate box inside the stadium — placed him arms on opposite shoulders and looked to the sky.
Messi, who later hit the post off a free kick, and the recalled Banega ran the game in the first half for Argentina. The team’s biggest problems arose whenever Mascherano lost possession in front of his own defense.
And it was Mascherano who gave away the penalty with a pull on Leon Balogun at a 49th-minute corner. Moses converted — and marked the goal with a somersault — to put Nigeria back in control of the race for second place in the group.
Argentina was facing finishing a World Cup without a win for the first time since 1934, but instead they are headed to the knockout stage.
Croatia cools off Iceland
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — Croatia ended Iceland’s chances at the World Cup and helped out Argentina at the same time.
Ivan Perisic capitalized on a defensive error to score a 90th-minute winner Tuesday, giving Croatia a 2-1 win over Iceland and first place in Group D on Tuesday.
Iceland could have finished second in the group with a victory because Argentina beat Nigeria 2-1 at the same time. Instead, the Croats will face Denmark on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod and Argentina will take on France on Saturday in Kazan.
Fielding a side filled with reserves after already being assured of a spot in the round of 16, Croatia started to take control of the match in the second half.
Milan Badelj, moments after hitting the bar, scored the opening goal in the 53rd minute. He sprinted into the area and sent a bouncing shot past goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
“The fact that we’ve brought on nine new players and won is another sign of our strength and depth, and we have to be proud of that,” said Badelj, who was man of the match.
Iceland equalized in the 76th when Gylfi Sigurdsson scored from the penalty spot after substitute Dejan Lovren handled the ball.
Defender Sverrir Ingason twice threatened for Iceland, hitting the crossbar with a header in the second half.
“There is too much quality in Croatia,” Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said.
PERU 2, AUSTRALIA 0: Already-eliminated Peru ended Australia’s hopes of advancing to the knockout round at the World Cup in Sochi. The Australians had to beat Peru and hope Denmark lost to France in the other Group C match, but neither result happened. France and Denmark drew 0-0 in Moscow. Andre Carrillo’s first-half goal — a half-volley from inside the area — was Peru’s first in a World Cup since 1982, the last time the South Americans played in the tournament. Peru hadn’t won a World Cup match since defeating Iran in 1978.
DENMARK 0, FRANCE 0: A game neither France nor Denmark needed to win produced the World Cup’s first scoreless draw amid boos and whistles from fans. A slow-paced game out of step with a vibrant tournament ensured already-qualified France won Group C and Denmark advanced as runner-up. A draw ensured that outcome, though Peru’s 2-0 victory over Australia playing at the same time meant the Danes would have advanced to the round of 16 even had they lost to France.