Argentina to progress as the group topper and Poland to make it through as the runner-up. This was the predicted outcome of Group C by most going into the FIFA World Cup.
At the end of Group C games, the expected turned true, albeit through a path not many would have envisioned.
Argentina fumbled against Saudi Arabia but found its footing against Mexico. Still, there was a lot left to do against Poland in its last game. When Wojciech Szczesny denied Lionel Messi from the spot in that game, Argentine fans feared the worst. The nerves were soothed soon after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez. Argentina stood top of the pile, ensuring a comparatively smoother path to the title.
The Argentine chaos looked minuscule in comparison to what ensued in the rest of the group.
Saudi Arabia crumbled after its miraculous win over Argentina, with defeats to Poland and Mexico, while the latter pair played out a timid draw after Guillermo Ochoa saved Robert Lewandoski’s penalty.
And in the last minutes of the last match day, Poland and Mexico were locked into a stalemate with all the parameters — points, goal difference, goals for and head-to-head — tied. For a brief while, Poland was ahead, on fair play points, by virtue of having lesser yellow cards than Mexico.
Eventually, the North American side conceded and Robert Lewandowski and his men sneaked into the next stage.
Best Goal — Messi vs Mexico
For the most prolonged duration of the Mexico game, Messi and his Argentina side looked rusty and destined to put themselves into a tough place, going into the final group game with just a point.
Everything changed, through a moment of magic from Messi’s left boot, as has often happened in the past. Messi, who was left surprisingly unmarked in a pool of space, was found by an Angel di Maria pass. The PSG star took a touch to push the ball forward, tantalisingly close for a Mexican defender to intercept, but at the perfect position for him to generate the power needed to get it past Ochoa in the goal.
The shot, which skimmed the carpet all along, never slowed down, as it flew in between three defenders and beyond the outstretched Ochoa into the bottom right corner.
A breath-taking goal, which breathed life into Argentina’s FIFA World Cup campaign.
Best Player — Wojciech Szczesny
Lionel Messi was the master puppeteer for Argentina, with goals and assists and everything Lionel Scaloni could ask for from his main man.
But the player of the group was the man who denied him from the spot in the last game of the group — Wojciech Szczesny.
Poland, despite possessing Robert Lewandowski, refused to come out of its shell. Eventually, it made it through, pipping Mexico on goal difference, thanks to its man under the bar.
Szczesny was solid against Mexico and kept a clean sheet, but his first decisive moment came in the Saudi Arabia game. With his side leading 1-0, he predicted the way Aldawari was going with the penalty and leapt from his line at the right moment to parry the kick away. He then quickly pounced on the rebound shot from Mohammed Al-Breik to save a near-certain goal.
The Juventus shot-stopper was at it against Argentina. A series of smart, sparkly saves was capped by a Messi penalty save. He was at hand to deny the diminutive genius on at least three other occasions. He would concede two goals on the day but was the single most reason why Poland made it through to the Round of 16.
Best Game — Saudi Arabia 2-1 Argentina
Saudi Arabia was supposed to be a minor obstacle for Argentina, which strode in as one of the tournament favourites. But football is often a funny game, which doesn’t follow even the best laid-out path.
The Asian side barely had a sniff at the goal in the first half of the Group C opener, as Argentina took the lead through a Lionel Messi penalty. Lionel Scaloni’s side would have been miles ahead if not for a few offsides which went against it.
In the second half, though, things changed. Saudi Arabia began to assert itself and deservedly levelled the game through Salem Alshehri, whose shot from an acute angle crept past a previously undisturbed Emiliano Martinez.
And then came Salem Aldaswari five minutes later. It all started when Nawaf Al-Abed tried to curl one with his left foot from the right-hand side, only for Cristian Romero to head it away. The resultant rebound was in Aldaswari’s sights but was set to land in the middle of a trio of Argentine defenders. The 31-year-old midfielder controlled the ball, warped his way through the trio, and then unleashed a shot that evaded Martinez’s fingertips to nestle in the top corner. Saudi survived for the rest of the game to script one of the greatest World Cup upsets.
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