When the chips are down, when your back is against the proverbial wall, and when you’ve run out of idioms to describe a difficult situation, you can often be left hoping for a hero. Having been roundly thrashed by Croatia in their World Cup Group D fixture last week, Argentina needed a win against Nigeria to catapult themselves into the knockout stages of this summer’s tournament. Jorge Sampaoli needed big performances from his big-name players, he needed unity and he needed a goal. Time for one of Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero or Paulo Dybala to make their mark, to justify their status and deliver a golden moment for this Argentine, surely?
No. Apparently not, no.
An official investigation needs to be carried out to explain why on earth Marcos Rojo, of all people, was in the penalty area during the 86th minute in St Petersburg on Tuesday night. Bring in Scotland Yard, the FBI, NASA, the lot. It was odd enough that Manchester United’s bewildering centre back was on hand to meet Gabriel Mercado’s cross with time running out given the talent that surrounded him on the pitch; the subsequent image of Rojo then striking the ball home on the volley, with his supposedly weaker right foot, no less, was enough to stretch the fabric of space and time itself. Let’s not forget that this was the same guy who had almost conceded a penalty about ten minutes prior by heading the ball against his arm under no pressure, too.
Admittedly, Argentina don’t have a tremendously large pool of players to choose from when it comes to the national side. It’s one of the reasons why United’s backup ‘keeper Sergio Romero remains the country’s no.1, despite not holding down a starting position at any club since 2014. As such, Rojo’s inclusion in Russia wasn’t a surprise; the stunning part of this situation is that such a perplexing character, who has spent the last four years of his career struggling to break into United’s starting XI was on hand to deliver Argentina’s special moment on Tuesday.
It’s been four years since Rojo was bought from Sporting Lisbon by Louis van Gaal after the Dutchman took a fancy to him during Brazil’s World Cup, and you’d wager that his most defining moment during that period was the image of treating his wife to a round of toast that looked like it’d been cooked on the surface of the sun.
It’s not that Rojo’s time at United has been a disaster; the Argentine looked relatively solid during Jose Mourinho’s first season in charge, but a steady stream of injuries and a frequent absence of form have meant that the man that Ander Herrera once dubbed ‘Crazy Horse’ has been far from a guaranteed starter at the club. There’s a committed, no-nonsense defender in there, alongside a likeable man. There’s also a guy who will follow up a tremendously dirty tackle with a stupendously innocent babyface in there, too.
This all adds to his newly-enhanced legend, in a way. Besides Rojo’s questionable toast-making skills, and the frequency with which he attempts to take pot-shoots from unreasonable areas of the pitch, there’s been nothing to suggest over these four years that the former Spartak Moscow man was capable of a moment like the one he served up against Nigeria.
Rojo may have the least to worry about of United’s current central defenders, given that he put pen-to-paper on a new three-year deal in March of this year, but without wishing to degrade his time at the club, it wasn’t necessarily a decision that made a lot of sense. Jose Mourinho seemed to rate him during his debut campaign as manager, but another long-term injury lay-off restricted him to just 12 appearances last term, and in all honesty, it’s incredibly difficult to suggest that the player has shown enough to suggest that he’s earned a career of this length at United.
Of course, that’s all changed after Tuesday night’s game. Make him captain, put him in that defence each week, and push him forward every time United need a goal. Move over, Marouane Fellaini; Jose’s got a new plan B.
Plenty of Manchester United players, past and present have etched themselves into the folklore of their country when playing international football. The mind instantly jumps to David Beckham’s stunning, last-gasp free kick against Greece at Old Trafford, or Wayne Rooney’s stirring performances in Euro 2004, or the sight of Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo winning Euro 2016 in Paris with Portugal. Remarkably, even if Argentina get walloped by France in the last 16, you can now add Marcos Rojo to that list.