The clock was ticking loudly, almost drowning the clamour raised by 35,000 blue and white fans. The sun had set in Saint Petersburg but the light lingered on like hope.
Chugging the right touchline was young Boca Juniors winger Christian Pavon, trying to get to the byline for the cross. After a few indifferent attempts, right back Mercado took it up, leaving Pavon to keep an eye on his rear. Mercado got it right in the 86th.
Frankly, no one in the stadium was following Marcos Rojo, the left-footed centre half, who had returned to the line-up after one game. When he thumped in his right-footed volley, coming in from the cold, there was no looking back for the Argentinians. They brought the house down, literally, and triggered the party that went through the night.
The Argentinian captain, blessed with a left-foot which responds to heavenly diktats, had scored their first with his right. With the man of the match award in his kitty, Messi was ready to face the world, visibly relieved, liberated.
“I knew that God was with us and that he wouldn’t let us miss out,” Messi said. “We were confident that we would win this game. It’s marvellous to have won it this way, it’s a joy we deserve. We had been through difficult days because of the previous results. I don’t remember having ever suffered so much, because of the situation and because of what was at stake. It was a huge release for all of us.
“Fortunately, we were able to achieve our objective. We knew we would do so. We didn’t expect to suffer so much but we were confident that we would get through. And thank God it happened.”
The captain was also keen to acknowledge the support from fans in Saint Petersburg and back home. “I thank everyone here, for their sacrifices, and for everyone in Argentina who has always been with us. To wear this shirt is the proudest thing to have happened to all of us.”
His celebration after the goal showed his relief and belief – he ran towards the corner flag, knelt down, his hands stretched towards the heavens as if saying, ‘I can touch God’.
Rojo, who scored the most important goal of his career said, “We needed it, now the World Cup begins for us. Messi had told the guys he wanted to score a goal more than ever. The goal is for my family and for this group that deserves it. Let’s go Argentina!”
Coach Jorge Sampaoli, who had spoken of a great response from his team after a difficult week, said: “With Lionel we share the dreams of doing something important in Russia. Today, players completed a difficult task to overcome a very difficult opponent. The players played with the heart and a lot of rebellion. This will strengthen the chances for the future.”
Now that the fear that had been chasing them since the first outing at Spartak Moscow stadium has been dispersed, Argentina can invoke their tradition and individual talent to counter France. The 1998 champions have smoothly sailed into the Round of 16 without much radio traffic in contrast to their South American opposition.
The occasion overawed John Obi Mikel’s Nigerians and their concentration lapsed as the match reached the climax.
Sampaoli can be rest assured France will not leave their backdoor open for someone to sneak in and snatch away the winner.