In his 1,000th career appearance, Lionel Messi played his best game of the World Cup so far, as Argentina beat Australia 2-1 to qualify for the quarter-final against the Netherlands next week. However, despite leading by two goals, the final moments of the game were much more nervous than Argentina expected.
Messi’s brilliant moment came in the 35th minute, after the first third of the match was well led by Australia. The Socceroos, by far the inferior side in terms of talent, did well to slow down Argentina’s attacks, letting them dominate possession but slowing the pace, leaving little room between the lines for chances to be created. And then came the moment after a flash point.
While closing down the opposition defence, Messi challenged Aziz Behich down the touchline, rattling the defender and himself in the process, causing a come together. Moments later, Behich gave away a naive wide free kick out of frustration. Messi’s throw was cleared, but the ball came back into his path, shuffled his way upfield and played the ball against Mac Allister whose pass was touched by Otamendi, again in Messi’s path. The maestro’s first touch was brilliant and the finish even better.
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By his own high standards, that finish might not have been unusual, but it was brilliantly assured. The shape, the angle, the precision. Like a flawless pass into the bottom corner. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, after not creating much in the early stages of the game, Argentina was ahead.
The rest of the game was a task for the Aussies, who had to create goal threat of their own while staying in their structured, defensive 4-4-2 formation. And by the hour, an individual error forced them to climb a mountain. Goalkeeper Mat Ryan was effectively pressured by Rodrigo De Paul as he attempted to play out from behind, and was caught on the ball by Julian Alvarez, who stole the ball from the keeper’s blind on the right and into the net to score his goal. second country in a moment of brilliant opportunism.
From then on, manager Lionel Scaloni made a series of changes as Argentina went into game management mode. They continued to create, but with less intensity, and Messi’s star continued to shine. In a particularly striking moment, he got on the ball in his own half, and with a shoulder hit on the half-turn left three Australian players in his wake, who drove into the penalty area before seeing his shot blocked.
But Australia showed the heart they have shown throughout the tournament to get past a tough group and make it this far. In the last quarter of the game, Craig Goodwin’s long-range strike from 25 yards, more hopeful than anything else, caught a huge deflection from Enzo Fernandez to make it 2-1. The tension in the stadium was palpable as moments later Behich made a fast run and passed three or four Argentine defenders before his shot was crucially blocked by Lisandro Martinez.
Argentina kept the pressure on in the late stages, only for a poor finishing from substitute Lautaro Martinez to keep the game within reach for Australia, who had another huge chance on their own in the dying moments. A cross from the left fell to Garang Kuol, who beat his man in the half-stroke to create a close-range shot opportunity, which required a strong save from Emi Martinez into goal.
In the end, Argentina took the win, but just about. That late wave from Australia would have made them uncomfortable, and the frantic and nervous defense they needed to cross the line may not be enough as they progress to the business end of the tournament.