Lionel Messi and Argentina live to fight another day as they secure safe passage

Messi sees penalty saved but Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez on target to set up meeting with Australia

Nobody goes home. Lionel Messi rolled back the years, jabbing constant attacks into Polish faces, as every other Argentina player responded with Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez goals securing safe passage to the last 16.

As Group C winners, they meet Australia at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium next Saturday night.

Robert Lewandowski, the superstar who effectively replaced Messi at Barcelona, was anonymous here but Poland also sneaked into the knock-out round, where they face France at Al Thumama on Sunday.

“Viva la France,” laughed Polish manager Czesław Michniewicz. “Allez les Blues!”


There was an incredible atmosphere inside this makeshift football cathedral as the Albiceleste appeared in irresistible mood. And there are few comparable feasts as a death match at the World Cup including two-time former champions Argentina.

Nothing equals the tension, the outpouring of emotions, a palpable fear as the sun set in Souq Waqif with the Islamic call to prayer tannoyed over Doha.

But the Argentina song remains the same (just translated from Spanish): “I was born in Argentina, Land of Diego and Lionel, Of the boys of the Malvinas, whom I’ll never forget.”

Messi lives to fight another day.

When needed most, a classic Argentinian storm blew into Qatar. They engineered 15 chances in the first half alone. It remained 0-0, mainly because Wojciech Szczesny stopped every shot on target, including Messi’s 37th-minute penalty. It was his 31st career miss from 137 spot kicks. He has hit better but Szczesny made a strong, right-handed intervention. It was the Juventus goalkeeper’s second penalty save at the tournament, having also denied Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al Dawari.

The decision by Dutch referee Danny Makkelie was harsh on the Poles, with Szczesny adjudged by VAR to have caught Messi with a forearm after the 35-year-old failed to head home at the back post.

That’s right, Messi at full stretch. He was everywhere.

He missed the golden opportunity but the reaction was breathtaking; a crowd of 44,089 instantly broke the decibel levels in the 974 stadium, roaring Messi’s name repeatedly, to keep the momentum flowing downhill.

Four more chances fell for Angel di Maria, Rodrigo De Paul and Marcus Acuna twice before the break but the former Arsenal goalkeeper seemed unbeatable.

Jakub Kiwior and Kamil Glik, centre backs plying their trade at unfashionable Italian clubs, deserve equal praise for holding the line as long as they did but a refreshed Kylian Mbappé should tear them open in four days’ time.

Poland were abysmal.

“We loved the game,” said Michniewicz. “After many, many years we have gone through to the knock-out stages.

“Let’s be honest, I have the same opinion as you, we all saw the nice Argentina football, so it is bittersweet but let’s enjoy going through tonight. You are taking away all the joy.

“Messi didn’t score, did he? It was so very hot, our players were struggling. I don’t know if you remember [Zbigniew] Boniek leading us out of the group in 1978. We are not packing our bags. Let’s be happy!”

Wonderfully, the Argentinian visitors refused to play ball with childish Qatari-Fifa half-time banter, wolf-whistling one of their own for trying to start a chant on the microphone. It was an act of defiance; lock them up for being gay or for hugging on the street, but nobody will tell the people who invented Tango how to embrace their true religion.

Seconds after the turn, the first goal came, with Di Maria feeding right back Nahuel Molina whose cut back for Mac Allister was swept to the net.

Instantly, the Brighton midfielder was encased in World Cup lore. The arena felt like La Bombonera, a living organism, and nothing to do with fake, external sounds.

Next, a moment made in Rosario, as Messi went on a mazy, retro dribble, covering 40 metres as word filtered through that Mexico were two-up on the Saudis.

Fifa have got many decisions wrong these past 12 years, top of the list being the form of slavery that facilitated the construction of these gigantic stadiums, but it continues apace. Their tone-deaf inability to understand the organic nature of this occasion, with piped music drowning out Argentinian voices with ‘I like to move it, move it.’

The Argentineans, openly disgusted with artificial constructs surrounding this World Cup, showered the night with pure joy when Alvarez controlled an Enzo Fernandez pass on 67 minutes, swivelling to stand up three Polish defenders before finishing to the top corner.

In celebration, Messi was just one of the team, because the team Lionel Scaloni has built around him finally appears to understand the assignment.

“It was a must-win match,” said Scaloni, the delighted Argentina coach. “Every match is tough, if you think Australia will be easy, you are wrong.

“Two days to recovery is unfair. It is 1am already.”

Good point well made.

Did you consider subbing Messi?

“No, I wouldn’t substitute him unless he tells me to do so!”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent