Lionel Messi had a penalty saved but Argentina booked their ticket to the 2022 World Cup knockout stage with a 2-0 win over Poland.
Alexis Mac Allister’s failed effort 60 seconds into the second half opened the scoring before Julián Álvarez’s brilliant curling shot sealed the three points as Argentina advanced as Group C winners .
The opener came after Messi, Argentina’s all-time top scorer, had his penalty saved by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny.
Álvarez’s sublime finish midway through the second half capped off a thrilling night for Argentina, who will now face Australia.
Poland qualified for the knockout stages by the skin of their teeth, qualifying on goal difference.
The other Group C match was a thrilling affair, with Mexico beating Saudi Arabia 2-1, but victory wasn’t enough for the Central American side and Poland will now face France in a round of 16 match on Sunday.
Not for the first time in his career, all the pressure was firmly on Messi’s door, with the 35-year-old relentlessly striving to step out of the long shadow that Diego Maradona cast over the Argentina national team.
Playing his 999th professional match, Messi rose to the challenge, troubling Poland from the first minute.
While the Polish attack offered very little throughout the match, Argentina turned up the pressure – and Messi and left-back Marcos Acuña came closer.
Argentina were given a big chance to break the deadlock when the video assistant referee ruled that Messi had been fouled by Wojciech Szczęsny when he was struck in the face by the flailing hand of the Polish goalkeeper.
However, Messi’s penalty was brilliantly saved by Szczęsny who somehow beat the ball with one hand.
It was the crowning achievement of a busy first half for Szczęsny, who finished the first 45 minutes with nine saves to his name as Argentina put on the pressure.
The penalty save was already Szczęsny’s second of the tournament and he became only the second goalkeeper since 1966 to save a penalty at the World Cup after conceding it himself, after Joel Bats for the France against Brazil in 1986, according to Opta Stats.
It took Argentina just under 60 seconds to break the deadlock after the break.
A cut cross from right-back Nahuel Molina fell at the feet of Mac Allister whose scuffed effort just managed to sneak past Szczęsny and send Stadium 974 into a frenzy.
It was Mac Allister’s first international goal, and continues his excellent year – he has come to this World Cup as the top scorer for his Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion this season.
This goal seemed to relax the Argentine players and fans inside the pitch. Messi, Álvarez and Ángel Di María started to put on the flair, playing with the Polish defense.
Midway through the second half, Álvarez showed why he had been drafted for this match – he had started the first two group games on the bench – by heading home to score his first World Cup goal.
With Poland opening they tried to pull themselves together in the game, more spaces opened up for Argentina, with Messi, Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez all closing in.
The conclusion of Group C must have been an agonizing watch for the Polish fans.
For a brief period of time during the match, Poland and Mexico were tied on goal difference. This meant that Poland needed to progress thanks to their best disciplinary record.
As Polish fans furiously checked their phones to keep an eye on the proceedings and with all eyes on whether any Polish players had received a yellow card, there was one final twist in Wednesday’s proceedings.
That was delivered by Salem Al Dawsari’s 95th-minute goal which gave Poland a superior goal difference, securing their progression to the next stage.
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