He missed a penalty, and he didn’t score, but Lionel Messi was yet again omnipresent on the night, creating intricate ripples in tight spaces, finding paths for the ball to travel where none existed. He is no longer the young creator scurrying all over the field dictating the game through his magnetic legs, but he now mostly strolls, never presses, and can run (once in a while) in 10-yard bursts, but he is still the driving force when on the pitch.
For a moment at the Stadium 974 it looked like the stars were not aligned as Messi’s penalty was stopped (40th minute), Wojciech Szczesny’s big right hand delivering justice to the soft spot kick the referee awarded for a softer brush by the goalkeeper on Messi’s forehead. The Argentine captain can also be good at theatrics (it’s not just Neymar’s domain), so he rolled on the floor but was up soon.
The stadium felt quiet, the fans were paranoid, the invisible scimitar of seeing Messi play one last time is always hanging in the air these days. But the world wants more, as does Messi – that one last trophy that means the most.
Argentina created enough in these first 45 minutes, Messi and Angel Di Maria, the veterans of this team, finding their years of chemistry yet again to push back a clueless Poland, which failed to utilise its own talisman. Robert Lewandoski was lonely upfront, with few balls reaching him that far as Poland defended this relentless Argentine storm. The team from Europe just had four shots to Argentina’s 23, and none were on target.
But with no goals scored, the nervous energy was all around the park and Argentina came out early, ready to get its job done. The Poles made them wait as they trudged out at least two minutes late. But the goal took less time to come as Alexis Mac Allister of Scottish and Irish descent mistimed his contact to a Nahuel Molina cut back.
The not-so-good connection was good enough to evade the fingertips of Szczesny to hit the post and then settle inside. The drums and whistles came to life as Latins, Malayalees, Bangladeshis, and Sudanese were all one–blue and white-clad members of the Messi cult. The goal scorer was in the captain’s embrace, his team was telling Messi that “your burden is ours to carry”.
For the next 25 minutes, the purple-blue Argentines were like a splotch of ink blotting every bit of the green grass as Poland was confined to its own half. The second goal arrived in spectacular fashion when Julian Alvarez picked up a pass from Enzo Fernandez and buried the ball into the roof of the net in the 67th minute. The game was won, the knockouts secured, and the missed penalty and the first match loss were on no one’s mind.
But Argentina, now enjoying the liberation, could have scored a few more and ended the Polish dreams. Lewandoski’s boys were hanging by a thread as Mexico was winning the other game against Saudi Arabia. The points were the same, as was the goal difference, and Poland was going through only on yellow card counts – four to Mexico’s seven. Pretty soon it was five to seven as Grzegorz Krychowuak was booked.
Poland defended but without tackles and the game turned a little comical with the European ears following a game elsewhere. But in the end the Saudis scored, and this abject defeat didn’t put the Poles out of the World Cup.