IT would have been a tragedy if, just when Lionel Messi had finally come good, he had to depart the Russia 2018 finals and, in all probability, international football as well.

The Barcelona forward was just four or so minutes away from exiting the World Cup in the Krevtovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg last night.

His Argentinian side was drawing 1-1 with Nigeria and they needed outright victory in their final Group D fixture in order to progress to the last 16 of the competition.

Lovers of the beautiful game across the planet prayed for the South Americans to snatch a late winner and somebody, somewhere was clearly listening.

Marcos Rojo, the Manchester United player, somehow found himself in the opposition area and met a Gabriel Mercado cross from the right wing with a first-time volley. Francis Usoho in goal had no chance.

The on and off-field celebrations - including from the legendary Diego Maradona in the stands - were wild with good reason.

Messi, who had been castigated fro missing a penalty in the 1-1 draw with minnows Iceland in the opening game 11 days ago will still, for another 90 minutes at the very least, be involved in the finals.

As the opening goal that he netted in the 14th minute underlined they will be far better for his presence. He got on the end of an Ever Banega high ball upfield, controlled it on his left knee, took a touch and then drilled an unstoppable shot into the top right corner with his weaker right foot.

They joy and relief to break the deadlock in a must-win game was obvious. He pointed to the heavens as if to give thanks for divine intervention of some kind. But the moment was all down to him.

This has been a wretched World Cup for both Messi and Argentina. They have been savaged for their displays and their camp has descended into chaos in the wake of their 3-0 defeat to Croatia last week. But it looked as though their fortunes were changing.

But the second-half got off to the worst possible start for the two-time winners and the man many knowledgeable observers feel is the greatest footballer of all-time.

Javier Mascehrano was penalised for holding at a corner and Cuneyt Cakir of Turkey immediately pointed to the spot. The Argentinian players surround the match official. But their protests were to no avail. It was, given the use of the Video Assistant Referee, a foolish act by such an experienced player.

Victor Moses of Chelsea was unperturbed by the length of time that elapsed before he had to step forward and take the spot kick. He drilled the ball beyond Uzoho.

But Argentina, beaten after extra-time by Germany in the final four years ago, fought back brilliantly and secured their progression against all the odds in dramatic fashion at the very death.

France now await in the first knockout round in the Kazan Arena on Saturday. The Euro 2016 finalists, winners of Group D, will provide more formidable opposition regardless of the dull 0-0 draw they ground out with Denmark yesterday. But perhaps this result will spark a turnaround for their opponents.

Messi, who has been playing at the top level for both club and country for the past 13 years, had retired from international football prior to these finals only to reverse his decision. It would have been a shame to see him bow out on such a sad note.

Hopefully, the 31-year-old’s stunning opening strike is a taste of what is to come in a tournament that is, slowly but surely, developing into a classic.

Can Argentinian, victors in their homeland in 1978 and Mexico in 1986, prevail for a third time? It would, even with the inspirational presence of their talisman, be something of a surprise. Few fancied them to do well before the tournament got underway and their suspicions have been justified.

But if Messi can conjure up more moments of magic like the one he produced in Saint Petersburg last night anything is possible.