Lionel Messi marked his 1000th game with a wonderful goal that helped take Argentina through to the World Cup quarter-finals, where they will face the Netherlands. A 2-1 win, thanks to goals from the great man and Julian Alvarez, was enough to see off a spirited Australian side that have done so well at this year’s tournament.
Ultimately though, Messi was the difference maker. Again.
Australia contained Argentina for the first 20 minutes and then managed to get their foot on the ball, able to play through a seemingly disorganised outfit that struggled to press. To be brutally honest, this is an Argentina team that looks bang average, but they have one truly special player.
For his opening goal, Messi decided to press the ball for the first time - seemingly sick of his teammates' wastefulness. He chased Aziz Behich out of play and then got the reaction he needed as the Australian defender shoved him in the chest in an attempt to intimidate him.
Instead what it did was light the fire inside Messi. Seconds later, Australia would pay the price. From a wide free-kick the ball was played into Nicolas Otamendi in the box and he touched the ball back towards the main man who took one touch inside and then curled the ball through a defender’s legs and into the net.
It was the only spark of a dull first half, and the only moment Argentina produced of any note. But that’s why they are always a threat. With that goal, Messi became the oldest Argentine to score a World Cup knockout goal, beating Roberto Ayala, who was 33 when he netted against Germany in 2006. Meanwhile, if you are counting, Australia are the 129th different team Lionel Messi has scored against, and he has found the net 789 times in those 1000 games. Not bad.
Australia performed well in their first knockout game since 2006, and they did land a late blow on an Argentina side that took full control in the second half with a tactical change.
Lisandro Martinez replaced Papu Gomez as Lionel Scalone switched it to a three at the back, and it's a formation Argentina look far more solid in. Minutes after that switch, his side capitalised on a terrible mistake from Aussie goalkeeper Mat Ryan, who gave the ball away under pressure from De Paul and Julian Alvarez tapped in to make it 2-0.
That goal seemed to spark the Manchester City man into life and he was enjoying himself every time he got the ball, having won his place from the in-form Lautaro Martinez. Messi embarked on a sensational solo run that left three Aussie defenders for dead as the crowd cheered every shimmy and shuffle from the great man.
The three at the back suits them down to the ground, and with quarter-final opponents the Netherlands employing the same system, perhaps that is what they will start with when they meet on Friday night.
Then, to take us away from the assigned script, Australia got a goal out of nothing as a wild strike from Craig Goodwin was deflected past Emi Martinez off Enzo Fernandez. Suddenly the Socceroos had hope and Behic ran with the ball, took it past four Argentinians and only a last ditch Martinez tackle got the ball away from danger. All the talk was about Messi, but if he’d have found the finish, that goal would have fitted right in at the top of the Argentine’s collection.
Lautaro Martinez should have finished the game off after another brilliant Messi run, before the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner turned on the charm late on a wonderful chance that just missed the upright. Martinez had one more save to make as 18-year-old Garang Kuol fired a low effort at him, but in the end a one-goal margin was enough and Messi’s World Cup dream lives on.
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