Nepal Minute - out of the ordinary

World Cup 2022

DOHA, Qatar

Rest easy, soccer fans. Lionel Messi will grace the World Cup stage at least one more time.

The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0 on Wednesday after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez and advanced to the last 16.

After opening the World Cup with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, Argentina wound up finishing in first place in Group C and will next play Australia — a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage.

Messi rolls into Saturday's game suddenly in a strong position in likely his final World Cup.

“Now another World Cup begins.” Messi said, "and hopefully we can continue to do what we did today.”

As for Poland, it was ultimately a happy night, too, because the team went through as the group's second-place team — on goal difference ahead of Mexico — and will next play defending champion France.

Messi ended up relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after he was hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick in the 39th minute.

“I’m upset that I missed the penalty, but the team came back stronger after my error,” he said.

A largely pro-Argentina crowd, waving flags and scarfs and beating drums behind both goals, had been sweeping Messi and his team along at the 44,000-seat Stadium 974 and they didn't stop after the penalty. Within seconds, a chant of “MESSI! MESSI!" immediately reverberated around the venue in a bid to keep their idol’s head high.

And the roars were even louder at the start of the second half, first after Mac Allister’s goal — a scruffy finish from Nahuel Molina's cut-back from the right — in the first minute and soon after as news filtered through that Mexico had taken the lead against Saudi Arabia, which started the day in third place.

Playing an Argentine-record 22nd World Cup game, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace all game to Poland with his dribbling ability and vision. One 40-meter solo run saw him weave past three opponents, and drift past another only to miskick as he took aim.

The match was billed as a head-to-head between Messi and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, perhaps the best center forward in the world, but it proved to be a mismatch.

“If Messi played with us and Robert played for Argentina, Robert would have scored five goals,” Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said. “Robert needs to be helped and the match was only played in our half.”

Messi was not involved in either goal, though. For the second, Enzo Fernandez scooped a pass to Alvarez — starting ahead of regular striker Lautaro Martinez — and he took one touch before curling his shot into the top corner in the 67th minute.

Things couldn't have gone better for Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who made more bold changes in bringing in Alvarez, Fernandez and Molina and seeing them play a part in the goals. Mac Allister, meanwhile, didn't start against Saudi Arabia and has added energy in midfield in the two games since.

Suddenly, Argentina looks more like the team which entered the World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten run and as one of the tournament favourites, a year after winning the Copa America.

“We wanted to make amends for that Saudi Arabia game because we knew we could play better,” Mac Allister said. “We've managed to find that calm we needed ... we played well collectively and it fills us with confidence.”

The final whistle blew with Poland players still unsure if they were advancing, given the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game was ongoing. At one stage, Poland and Mexico were only separated by the number of yellow cards they had collected in the group stage — Poland had five compared to Mexico's seven — and Michniewicz was desperately urging his team to not give away fouls in the final minutes.

Poland's bittersweet loss costs Mexico dear  

Mexico team players react to the news of Poland's loss to Argentina, at the Lusal Stadium. Photo: AP/RSS

A stoppage-time goal by the Saudis meant their match finished 2-1 in favour of Mexico, whose goal difference was inferior by one to Poland.

Upon confirmation they had advanced, Poland's players squirted water from their bottles in the middle of the field and jumped up and down.

“Sometimes,” Michniewicz said, “losses can be bittersweet.”

Up north in Lusail, the mood in the Mexican camp was completely opposite.

Mexico's furious attempt to stay alive at the World Cup was successful despite their victory over Saudi Arabia on the night. This is the first time that Mexico have failed to advance out of their group since 1978.

“We had a chance to qualify,” Chavez said glumly. “We didn't achieve it.”

Mexico had reached the knockout round at the last seven World Cups, second only to Brazil, which has gone through to the round of 16 since 1986.

El Tri went into the match at Lusail Stadium needing both a victory and help from Poland playing across town against Argentina to advance in Group C. Argentina's victory meant goal difference came into play — and Mexico didn't have enough of them.

Henry Martin scored in the 48th minute to give El Tri hope, and the team's chances got even better with Chavez's goal on a free kick four minutes later.

Mexico tried desperately in the final 20 minutes to get another goal — including an effort by Uriel Antuna in the 87th minute that was ruled offside — but came up short.

“We needed one more goal. I didn’t know exactly what happened at the end," said veteran Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who was playing in his fifth World Cup. "For us, the object was to score three or four goals. It’s a shame.”

Salem Aldawsari scored in second-half stoppage time for Saudi Arabia, which was eliminated along with Mexico despite beating Argentina in its opening match.

Martin’s goal ended Mexico’s 431-minute scoring drought at the World Cup, dating back to their second group match at the 2018 tournament in Russia. It was the team’s longest-ever stretch without a goal at the tournament.

Associated Press

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