Argentina could have been heading for an early World Cup exit without Lionel Messi on Saturday, or at the very least leaving themselves with a massive uphill battle in their third and final group game.
La Albiceleste came into the 2022 World Cup as one of the hot favourites, third in FIFA’s world rankings and having gone 36 games unbeaten over a three-year period.
But a shock defeat against Saudi Arabia in the opening game, even after taking the lead early in the game when Messi scored from the penalty spot, was not the start they wanted or needed.
Defeat in a tough game against Mexico would have sent Lionel Scaloni’s team packing in the group stage for the first time in 20 years when they fell apart at the 2002 finals.
Even a draw against Mexico would have been a disastrous result for Argentina, leaving them bottom of the group and at the mercy of Poland, Saudi Arabia and Mexico on the final matchday.
For more than an hour, it looked like it was heading that way. But Messi, in what is the final World Cup of his illustrious career, stepped up when it mattered most.
Argentina had generally flattered to deceive for 63 minutes at the Lusail Stadium until Messi took the game by the scruff of the neck and, from distance, lashed the ball into the bottom corner out of almost nothing. The ensuing celebrations showed relief as much as jubilation.
For Messi, it wasn’t a vintage performance overall. But it was a sixth consecutive international game in which he has found the net and a 93rd goal for his country in total.
It gave Argentina sufficient breathing room, before a stunner from substitute Enzo Fernandez sealed the 2-0 result that sent La Albiceleste from bottom of the group to top.
The job still isn’t done for Argentina, but with three points rather than one going into the final group game it is now a whole lot easier than it would have otherwise been.
It remains firmly in their own hands because victory over Poland would automatically mean progression to the last 16 regardless of the other result in the group. A draw against Poland risks not being enough, although it still could be as long as Saudi Arabia don’t beat Mexico by any scoreline…or Mexico don’t win by more than three goals.
If Argentina lose against Poland they will be out regardless because any result in the game between Saudi Arabia and Mexico would see one of them go into second place.
Harry Symeou hosts Scott Saunders, Grizz Khan and Jack Gallagher to look back on France ’98 as part of the ‘Our World Cup’ series. We take a trip down memory lane – join us!