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How Argentina Escaped Australia’s Last-Ditch Rally to Advance to Quarterfinals

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Lionel Messi scored through the legs of an Australia defender in the primary half.Credit…Juan Mabromata/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — For all of his accomplishments, and there are numerous, there was one thing Lionel Messi had never done on the World Cup: rating a goal in an elimination game.

Now that he has done so — his first-half shot helped carry Argentina to a 2-1 victory over Australia on Saturday night — he still has a likelihood at one other first: Messi has never lifted the World Cup trophy.

A championship, after all, remains to be a ways away. But squint your eyes as Messi darted through the Australian defense at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday night and it still seems possible. For 90 minutes, Messi, 35, looked just like the Messi who made his World Cup debut at 18 and has torn through club opponents across Europe for many years.

With the win, Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals, where it can face the Netherlands on Friday. A possible matchup with Brazil looms after that, and possibly one with France or Spain or England if Argentina (together with one among those other teams) can reach the ultimate.

Messi’s last act on the World Cup stage is maybe still a ways away.

“I’m very completely happy for taking one other step forward and achieving one other objective. It was a really physical and difficult match,” Messi said, then alluding to the indisputable fact that Argentina’s final group stage game was three days before. “We had played recently and didn’t have much time to rest up. We were a little bit concerned about that.”

A lot about this era of Argentina’s World Cup history has revolved around Messi, the generational forward who, on Saturday, made his 1,000th appearance for club and country. Even with a lot mileage on his legs, his skill still shined through against Australia.

In the primary half, Messi and Argentina quietly probed the Australian defense, controlling possession of the ball and in search of any crease. With the guile and shiftiness of Messi, who roams freely around the sphere, that opening can come at any moment — and thru any defender.

Toward the tip of the primary half, Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister flicked a pass to Nicolás Otamendi within the penalty area. In a slick give-and-go, Otamendi astutely stopped and left the ball to Messi, who took one dribble and fired a shot through the legs of an Australian defender and into the lower left corner of the online. And identical to that, the large pressure facing Argentina and Messi in Qatar, a tournament that began with a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia, felt as if it had lifted.

Argentina’s Julián Álvarez after scoring his team’s second goal against Australia.Credit…Manan Vatsyayana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To have a good time the goal, Messi threw out his arms and raced over to a corner of the sphere where he was engulfed by teammates in a circle. The stands, largely full of the blue and white stripes of Argentina jerseys, bounced up and down. It was the ninth goal in 23 World Cup games for Messi — who has appeared in every edition of the tournament since 2006 — but his first goal in a knockout-round game.

“Impressive,” forward Julián Álvarez said in Spanish of Messi. “Not only the goal but his performance during all the game and the last minutes were essential, too. It doesn’t surprise us. We all know Leo and we’ll all the time do our greatest to support him.”

Even when Messi didn’t rating — his scampering run through the Australian defense within the sixty fifth minute led to a corner kick, and more cheers — fans within the stands bowed to him. After the sport, Messi commended the big variety of Argentine fans who had traveled to Qatar and loudly supported him and the team.

“There may be this bond that we’ve, this union that we’ve, that is gorgeous,” he said, adding later, “It’s unbelievable how they live each match, their passion, their energy and their joy. We’re very thankful.”

But when Argentina is to win the World Cup and produce those fans further delight, Messi cannot do it on their lonesome. And within the 57th minute, he got a taste of the type of help he’ll need. When Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan paused too long in clearing a ball in front of his goal while under pressure from two Argentine players, Álvarez stabbed the loose ball free, turned and slotted it into the empty net.

The second goal proved critical: Within the 77th minute, Australia forward Craig Goodwin fired a left-footed shot from outside the box that deflected off midfielder Enzo Fernández and into the goal.

Eager to tie the sport and advance to the quarterfinals for the primary time in its history, Australia turned up its attack. Within the 81st minute, Aziz Behich wove through Argentina’s players but had his close-range shot blocked. In injury time, Australian forward Garang Kuol freed himself for an open shot, only to have it saved by Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. His relieved teammates piled on top of him to have a good time, and up the sphere Messi was relieved.

“That’s the World Cup for you,” he said. “These matches are all the time difficult, but we got the win.” And with it, Argentina and Messi moved one step closer toward their goal.

A correction was made on 

Dec. 3, 2022

An earlier version of this post misspelled the given name of an Australian soccer player. He’s Garang Kuol, not Gerang.

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