Lionel Messi bails Argentina out of World Cup nightmare in 2-0 win over Mexico

Lionel Messi bails Argentina out of World Cup nightmare in 2-0 win over Mexico

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the World Cup Group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on Saturday, November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal during the World Cup Group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on Saturday, November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi entered the cauldron at 9:53 p.m. and stared into the eye of the storm at Lusail Stadium. It had been brewing for hours and days with Argentina here on the brink of World Cup elimination. It bombarded him for an hour as Messi and his teammates seemed paralyzed by the pressure and Mexican noise. And then, after 63 minutes of abysmal football, he emerged from a crowded midfield to lift his nation out of impending despair.

Mexico did everything to stop him. Messi, nonetheless, fired an accurate left-footed shot past Guillermo Ochoa to break a deadlock and lift Argentina in a massive, crisis-avoiding 2-0 victory.

His goal delighted tens of thousands of Argentinian fans here, and some in tears. He sent his side to second place in Group C, having recovered from the Saudi Arabia clash four days earlier. This sent his teammates flying towards the far corner flag, where he had sprinted in celebration. He sent one, Lisandro Martinez, to his knees, perhaps in thanks to a divine being, perhaps in overwhelming relief.

“MEEEESSSSIIII,” chanted fans. “MEEEESSSSIIIIII.”

“Geeeeenniioooo,” they sang moments later. Genius.

Later, they bowed to him as if he were a god. When Enzo Fernandez doubled the lead and took the win, some took off their shirts and twirled them through the air. At the final whistle, his teammates reached out for Messi and wrapped him in a big, grateful group hug.

They – Argentina, the team, the nation, the international brand, the aura – had come to Qatar expecting a long stay. They came as joint favorites, as South American champions, as Finalissima winners. They arrived on a 36-game unbeaten streak that lasted several encounters with Brazil. And they came, buoyed by their 2021 Copa America triumph, without the unbearable pressure that had haunted Messi in previous tournaments.

And they took off with ease, waltzing at will across Saudi Arabia for half an hour. Then the nightmare began. The two Saudi goals. Near misses. Frustration. Reverberations around the world. The horror.

Reports and rumors have painted a devastating picture of the locker room. Confidence gave way to doubts. The shock took hold of the country and the players. And the pressure is back.

Argentina's Enzo Fernandez, second from right, celebrates with team mate Lionel Messi, right, during the World Cup Group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, in Qatar on Saturday, November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez, second from right, celebrates with team mate Lionel Messi, right, during the World Cup Group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, in Qatar on Saturday, November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

They reunited with their family at their base at Qatar University in Doha. They came to Lusail on Saturday evening with stoic faces and the occasional smile. But when they emerged onto the pitch for warm-ups, 40 minutes before kick-off, the impossible size of the opportunity surely hit them.

Tens of thousands of Argentines were already there to welcome them. Very few places actually needed. They stood, leaped, flapped their arms and sang song after loud song. Some had started hours before kick-off. They grew in number and volume. They let out a deafening roar as Messi’s picture appeared on the big screens and his name blared from the loudspeakers.

And Mexican fans matched them, word for word of song, ounce for ounce of passion, decibel for decibel.

And the Mexican team, themselves under pressure, rose to the challenge.

Mexico coach Tata Martino changed the lineup and sent a strikerless 5-3-2, with a double false-9. This made Argentina worse. But more than anything, the South American favorites seemed paralyzed by the occasion, by a combination of stakes and constant din that completely overpowered even the referee’s whistle. They looked nervous. They played clumsily. In the opening exchanges, they offered nothing in terms of incisive moves or threat.

They seemed terrified of the mere possibility that a Mexican crusade in the attacking half, or even a minor mistake, could end their World Cup. They were sucked into playing an extraordinarily ugly first half. Mexico had made her ugly on purpose; and Argentina by accident. There were 16 fouls and no shots on target in open play. The revulsion silenced many Argentinian fans, who for so long had been so determined to racketeer.

But it emboldened Mexican fans. Because they knew a draw with the former Group C favorite would have suited them just fine.

Argentina, however, perked up when Messi won and held on from a free-kick in a central area 25 yards out. He floated it over the bar, but their possession for the first 15 minutes of the second half suddenly felt patient and powerful rather than stagnant.

Shortly after, Messi intervened. More than 80,000 people stood up as one and cheered. The tension erupted and became ecstatic.

With four minutes remaining and the tension building as Argentina tried to clinch victory, Fernandez rushed into the box and curled a beauty past Ochoa.

His goal lifted Argentina into second place in goal differential, tied with Saudi Arabia on three points and behind Poland on four points. Last day scenarios are complex. But one is simple: Argentina will advance and almost surely top the group with a victory.

The four-day nightmare, it seems, is over.

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