ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — 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 2, Iceland 1
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — 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. “I am disappointed but I am really proud of the character and the performance of the boys.
“It was a bit of a shock to concede one, but we did not give up,” he said. “The players should have a lot of credit for this game. I couldn’t have been more proud.”
France 0, Denmark 0
MOSCOW (AP) — A game no team needed to win became the game no fan would want to watch.
France and Denmark produced the World Cup’s first 0-0 draw at the 37th attempt amid boos and whistles from fans on Tuesday.
The slow-paced game was out of step with a vibrant tournament. But it advanced both teams to the round of 16 unbeaten, with the bonus of no players suspended and no serious injuries. France will now play Argentina, and Denmark faces Croatia.
The draw would always have ensured that outcome, and became inevitable in the second half. Events elsewhere in Group C made this game all but irrelevant.
Peru beat Australia 2-0 in Sochi at the same time, meaning the Danes would have advanced even if they lost to France before 78,011 at the World Cup’s signature Luzhniki Stadium.
“We did what we needed,” Denmark coach Age Hareide said, praising his team for a disciplined display. “We would have been stupid to open a lot of space for the French team.”
France was already sure to advance with two opening victories, and this result spread the happiness to Denmark and its thousands of fans who stayed to dance and cheer in an empty stadium.
Less happy were the neutral fans in the crowd. Many Russians cheered the host team’s name and whistled misplaced passes and slow play as the game progressed with Denmark protecting its one point for a draw.
It was the longest a World Cup had gone without a goalless draw since 1954, a tournament of 26 games which all delivered at least one goal.
“We didn’t have to take risks to get better because this result was good for everyone,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
Deschamps rested six starters to put out a team that barely tested Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel until substitute Nabil Fekir tried two long-range shots.
It was a mostly forgettable first major tournament start for France goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, who has been a backup at two World Cups and three European Championships. The 33-year-old made his only save in the 54th minute, spilling Christian Eriksen’s free-kick before pouncing on the loose ball.
Peru 2, Australia 0
SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Back at the World Cup for the first time since 1982, Peru isn’t leaving Russia empty handed.
The Peruvians failed to score a goal in their opening two matches, but the team finally gave its fans a reason to celebrate when it ended Australia’s hopes of advancing to the knockout round with a 2-0 victory on Tuesday.
The Australians had to beat Peru and hope Denmark lost to France in the other Group C match, but neither result occurred. France and Denmark drew 0-0 in Moscow.
Andre Carrillo’s 18th-minute goal — a half-volley from inside the area — was Peru’s first in a World Cup since its last appearance 36 years ago. Peru hadn’t won a World Cup match since defeating Iran in 1978.
“I need to thank the players for their great effort, and the fans, who were incredible and supported us all the way,” Peru coach Ricardo Gareca said. “At least we were able to give them a triumph, that’s the most important thing.”
Peru captain Paolo Guerrero, who almost missed the tournament because of a doping suspension, scored the other goal in the 50th with a left-footed strike after getting to a loose ball inside the area.
Australia striker Tim Cahill, a 38-year-old veteran who entered the match in the 53rd minute, had a chance to become only the fifth player to score in four World Cups, joining Pele, Uwe Seeler, Miroslav Klose and Cristiano Ronaldo. But he had few chances.
Australia needed the victory to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2006 but it had a slow start at Fisht Stadium, unable to get near the opposing area. The Peruvians, boosted by a loud crowd that heavily outnumbered the Aussies, took advantage of their chances and gave their team an honorable finish after two opening losses.
The whole squad saluted the boisterous Peruvian fans after the match, spending several moments near their sections in the stands.
Australia’s best chance to score came in the 27th minute when Tom Rogic made a run through the Peru defense and had his shot saved by goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.