A relieved Lionel Messi celebrates his goal. (Pro Shots/Sipa USA via USA TODAY Sports)
The man who gave us that notorious Hand of God goal 32 years ago prayed to the soccer gods for them to smile on his beloved national team.
Minutes before Argentina tussled with Nigeria for a spot in the knockout round of the World Cup, Diego Maradona, standing on his seat at Krestovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg, propped up with the help of two men, looked skyward with his arms held high as though he was a religious leader seeking divine intervention.
A little later, Maradona crossed himself, probably hoping for the best.
Well, what he got wasn’t necessarily the best from Lionel Messi, but it was damn good, good enough to propel the underachieving side to the knockout round. Of course, he had some help from his friends. Back-up goalkeeper Franco Armani, who never played an international match, made his debut on the world stage. He didn’t get a shutout, a 2-1 win, sufficed as Nigeria’s lone goal was a 51st-minute penalty kick by Victor Moses.
The game-winner came off the foot of center back Marcos Rojo, who volleyed home a right-wing cross in the 86th minute to snap a 1-1 deadlock for his third career goal.
So, the soap opera named Agony Argentina survived to be renewed to play another day, such as Saturday against France in the next round.
Of course, the Argentineans can only blame themselves for their on-the-edge performance after two train wrecks of games in their first two appearances at Russia 2018.
You might remember them:
* The Iceland fiasco, a 1-1 draw in which Messi had a penalty kick saved.
* The Croatia fiasco in which Willy Caballero produced the howler of this tournament with an abysmal clearance that Croatia’s Ante Rebić volleyed home to start the rout.
This game was different, as was the result.
Messi previewed things to come during the pregame from his body language in the players tunnel — he shook the hands of his Nigerian foes confidently — and the national anthem.
What a contrast to the Croatian confrontation, in which Messi looked like a man who had the weight of the world, Mars and Venus on his shoulders. During the anthem, Messi appeared to look like someone who would rather be anywhere else in the universe. He had his eyes closed shut and rubbed his forehead.
Not exactly a scene of overwhelming confidence.
Not surprisingly, it translated into his performance, which was awful.
Tuesday wasn’t always classic Messi, but he produced some magic and more importantly, a goal.
He finally scored a sublime goal in the 14th minute. Messi collected a floated pass from Ever Banega over the top of the Nigerian defense. He bolted into the penalty area before powering home a right-footed shot past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho for a 1-0 lead and quite appropriately, the 100th goal of the competition.
Messi dropped to his knees in celebration, looking up to the heavens. Was he thanking the soccer gods? Who knows? He could have been just relieved to have scored.
Next stop for Messi and company is France in the Round of 16.
If the soccer gods are kind to us, perhaps we could have a Portugal-Argentina quarterfinal — translated, Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi.
Then again, perhaps we are asking for too much.
Right now, Messi and Agony Argentina are just happy to be alive and kicking in the World Cup.
Maradona, never one to be confused with the classiest of soccer observers, flipped the bird not once, but twice, after Argentina’s goals Tuesday.
After the game, he reportedly needed to be hospitalized after he supposedly stumbled after leaving an executive box at the stadium.
According to Diego Cora of ESPN Deportes, medical staff was summoned. Maradona sat slumped in a chair close to where he watched the game.
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