However, when Javier Mascherano dragged down Leon Balogun in the box shortly after the restart, Victor Moses stepped up to roll Nigeria level and within touching distance of progressing. But, Rojo scored late in the game to set up a Round of 16 clash against France. Nigeria and Iceland are out after finishing third and fourth, respectively. They have qualified for the knock-out stages! This is great news for Argentina!
In the end it was not a Messi moment but an extraordinary volley from the right-boot of Marcos Rojo which saved Argentina at this World Cup , which sent them into the last and which prolonged the international career of the best player the planet has probably ever seen.
Lionel Messi scored and scored a brilliant goal but, in itself, it was not enough against Nigeria who are out and will depart Russia with a sense of injustice and not least because at the identity of the man who sent them out.
Then as Argentina seemed to be subsumed by their angst, by the devils which have gripped them and the weight of expectation which has overwhelmed them Messi intervened again.
Except it was to roll a simple pass down the right touchline for Gabriel Mercado to send in a cross.
Instead of Gonzalo Higuain, instead of Sergio Aguero, who had also come on by that stage, it was the centre-half to strike the sweetest of volleys which tore past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and into the net.
There were 86 minutes on the clock. Just four minutes plus injury-time to go. That clock was so close to ticking down but on an increasingly feverish and desperate night in St Petersburg, a night when the city and the stadium was turned into a fervent sea of blue and white clad, chanting Argentinians they saved themselves and will go forward from Group D, runners-up to Croatia, to face France, after collecting just four points from three unconvincing performances.
When that final whistle went all control was lost. The bench exploded onto the pitch, the players slumped in God-like prayer, including their little God Messi, who actually stood motionless in this maelstrom deep in his own thoughts and communications.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli had also earned his reprieve even if his influence on this squad is so damaged that he will not remain in his post, come what may. Even at half-time the cameras cut to the tunnel to catch Messi giving a team-talk while the rumours were that his team-mate Javier Mascherano had helped select the starting XI which was, in fact, the oldest ever to appear at a World Cup with an average age of 30 years and days.
Messi takes the ball in his path before firing in the opener Credit: ap It felt like a team out of touch, out of time and out of this tournament despite their undeniable, dervish effort. But there was only one thirty-something who matters and Messi was not bowing out.
Not now. Not yet.
This World Cup has been a brilliant festival of football but it was lacking one thing. It was lacking Messi. And he gave it. His first-half goal was simply beautiful in every aspect. It came as Ever Banega, one of five changes made by Sampaoli or, rather, by the players as the coach drowns in a sea of revolt, flighted a glorious pass forward which picked out Messi.
The goalkeeper was left grasping air, the ball was in the net and Messi was scampering off in celebration. In the stands Diego Maradona folded his arms across his chest and raised his eyes to the heavens in relief. And with that it was the th goal of this World Cup, Messi became the first player to score in this competition as a teenager, in his 20s and in his 30s and World Cup minutes without a goal ended for him.
Diego Maradona celebrates in the stands Credit: Barcroft media Messi had been stationed out towards the right-wing in this re-worked team but, for 45 inspired minutes, he simply used that as his launch-pad.
It was his finely-weighted pass that split the Nigerian defence to send Higuain through only for Uzoho to smother and he stepped up to take the free-kick after Leon Balogun tripped Angel Di Maria.
From it Messi swung his shot left-footed across goal with the ball cannoning back off the far post. It would have gone in but for a finger-tip touch from the diving Uzoho. Nigeria have proved themselves to be far better in the second-half of matches and so it proved again.
The penalty was given and Victor Moses calmly stroked it beyond debutant goalkeeper Franco Armani to level the scores. Argentina were stunned. Suddenly panic set in as they desperately tried to regain the initiative.
By now nerves were frayed. Argentina escaped the penalty appeal, a draw would not be enough but, through Rojo, they grasped the lifeline. Stat time Some post-match stats from our friends at Opta: Argentina have qualified from the World Cup group stages for the fourth consecutive tournament , , and Argentina are unbeaten in their last 40 World Cup games when opening the scoring W35 D5 , since a defeat against Germany in Nigeria have now been eliminated in the group stages in three of their last four World Cup campaigns , and