Nigeria’s 2018 FIFA World Cup run turned out on Tuesday at St Petersburg to be a brave but late rally as Argentina beat them 2-1 to advance into the second round.
A late Marcus Rojo goal ensured both teams’ final Group D match did not end in a draw which would have pushed the Super Eagles into the next round.
The match had begun tentatively, and Lionel Messi brought it into life when he scored his first Russia 2018 goal in fine fashion to give Argentina a deserved 1-0 half-time lead.
Ever Banega lifted over a retreating Nigerian defenceline for Messi to brilliantly control with his thigh and edge past Kenneth Omeruo before striking home in the 14th minute with his right.
Argentina had been lacklustre in their first two games and were on the verge of an embarrassing exit, but they did what was needed to keep the Nigerian side in check.
Messi could have extended the lead in the 32nd minute, when Banega almost inspired a second goal for the Argentines.
Banega put Angel Di Maria clear, and the winger was brought down by Leon Balogun for a free kick.
His free kick from the edge of the penalty box was pushed into the far upright and back into play by goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.
They steadfastly held on to their lead as the Eagles struggled to stay in the game and probably draw level.
But a Javier Mascherano foul on Balogun resulted in a penalty kick which Victor Moses utilised to equalise for Nigeria in the 51st minute, for the Eagles to spring to life.
Nigeria thereafter wasted several chances to add a second, with their offensive still blunt in spite of the 46th minute substitution of Kelechi Iheanacho for Odion Ighalo.
But as the clock wound down, Argentina surged forward in their number, getting succour from an unlikely source in Manchester United central defender Rojo.
Nigeria were just minutes away from joining group leaders Croatia in the second round before Rojo superbly volleyed home a Gabriel Mercado cross from the right.
Croatia advance as Group D winners with the maximum nine points after beating Iceland 2-1 in the group’s other match, and will now face Denmark in the second round.
Argentina go on to face France in the next round, having finished second in the group with four points.