Lionel Messi’s superb long-range strike helped revive Argentina’s flagging World Cup hopes as they claimed a crucial 2-0 win over Mexico at the Lusail Stadium.
Argentina came into the game knowing defeat would mean elimination after their shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia and they laboured again until Messi’s 65th-minute intervention.
The 35-year-old, playing at what is expected to be his last World Cup, picked up Angel Di Maria’s pass outside the box and arrowed a precise shot into the bottom corner to break the deadlock in a scrappy and ill-tempered encounter.
Messi then turned provider as Argentina made the game safe three minutes from time, his pass finding substitute Enzo Fernandez who cut inside and curled a sumptuous finish past Guillermo Ochoa.
The victory looked unlikely at times during a game disrupted by constant fouls and featuring little in the way of quality, but it takes Argentina up to second in Group C, a point behind Poland, who they face in their final game as they bid to clinch their place in the last 16.
“Today another World Cup starts for Argentina,” Messi said after the game. “I tell people the same thing, that they continue to believe. Today we did what we had to do.
“We had no other choice. We had to win so that we depended only on ourselves.
“The first half we didn’t play as we should and in the second, when we calmed down, we started to play the ball better and after the goal we went back to being what we are.”
How Argentina emerged victorious
Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni had sought to shake things up following the Saudi Arabia defeat, making five changes to his team, with Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez and Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister among those included.
But there was no sign of improvement in a dire first half, with Messi unable to influence proceedings and Lautaro Martinez cutting an isolated figure ahead of him as Argentina, flat and disjointed, picked up where they left off in Tuesday’s game.
Mexico looked more threatening in the first period, but, like Argentina, they struggled to produce any real moments of quality, with an Alexis Vega free-kick, comfortably saved by Emi Martinez, the only effort on target from either side before the interval.
There was more of the same after the break despite the crackling atmosphere inside the ground, with a wayward Messi free kick seemingly summing up his evening as he struggled to spark.
It all changed, though, when he finally found himself in a pocket of space around 25 yards from goal, taking a touch to control Di Maria’s pass before rifling an unstoppable shot into the far corner.
The goal sparked wild celebrations among Argentina’s players and fans and there was another outpouring of relief when substitute Fernandez ran onto Messi’s pass following a corner and dispatched a sublime finish from the left-hand side of the box.
Mexico offered little in response, registering only four shots over the course of the game, leaving Argentina to celebrate a victory that maintains their hopes of qualifying for the last 16.
What it means in Group C
Having avoided a defeat to Mexico which would have ended their World Cup participation, Argentina have their Group C destiny in their own hands again. Victory against Poland on Wednesday night will guarantee not only their progression but also put them in pole position to advance as group winners – to deny them top spot in that scenario, Saudi Arabia would not only need to beat Mexico but also win by a larger margin than Argentina.
Poland will progress if they avoid defeat to Argentina – a win would guarantee their progression as group winners – while a draw for Saudi Arabia against Mexico and a defeat for Poland would only see the Saudis qualify if Poland lose heavily.
As for Mexico, they have to beat Saudi Arabia to have any hope of qualifying. A win for Mexico and a defeat for Argentina against Poland would definitely be sufficient for Mexico to finish as runners-up while a win for Mexico and a draw between Argentina and Poland would see the two South American teams finish level on points and runners-up status determined by goal difference.
What the managers said…
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni: “The feeling you are playing something more than a football match, I don’t share this opinion.
“I do think the feeling of joy is there. Maybe you think I am crazy. We will enjoy it in the dressing room tonight, but tomorrow, that’s it, we start again.
“It was the same when we won the Copa America – the happiness lasts only 10 minutes. We need to find that emotional balance when we win, and when we lose.”
Mexico coach Gerardo Martino: “When Messi gets the ball, in 30 seconds he can be very harmful.”
When asked if he felt Mexico had afforded Messi too much space throughout, Martino replied: “I don’t see it that way. I saw there was space when he scored – we made a mistake.
“I don’t think during the match he found many spaces in the last third, but I do understand that Argentina’s goals can change the perspective of what has happened over the 90 minutes.
“We held our heads high to face a huge opponent in Argentina and I’m sure we will play the same way and we will break our backs in the next game.”
Keane: Moments of quality won it
Sky Sports pundit Roy Keane told ITV: “As these great players get older, it’s all about moments and that bit of end product. We’ve talked about Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo recently, the finish was brilliant, but other than that he was very average.
“But he produced that moment. He’s now got two goals in two games and considering people are saying he’s almost finished, you can’t write these players off.
“In the second half, I was looking at Argentina thinking ‘what kind of characters have you got, because you’re up against it’, but they turned it around. They found a way to win the game with two bits of quality.
“Credit to the manager, he made changes before the game and just as important, made changes during the game. They got the job done and they’ll be feeling a lot better tonight.”
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville credited Argentina’s switch to five at the back as another key factor in the victory.
“In the first half, I couldn’t see a way for Argentina in terms of the overall competition,” he said on ITV.
“But I liked it when they went to five at the back, they did it at the start of the second half by dropping one of the midfield players in, but then they bought Romero on.
“All of a sudden, they looked a lot more aggressive and the three in midfield had a lot more energy.
“Then with Alvarez and Messi up front as a two, you can build from a solid foundation and have the players up front who can actually deliver in moments, which is how Argentina are going to win this tournament if they’re going to do it.”
Analysis: Messi still a game-changer
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Lionel Messi had endured a deeply frustrating evening at the Lusail Stadium, his struggles mirroring those of the Argentina team as a whole, but his sensational opening goal was a reminder he can still change a game in an instant.
Messi had floated on the periphery of a poor-quality encounter for the preceding hour, a wayward free kick early in the second half his only attempt on goal. But when his opportunity finally came, in a pocket of space just outside the box, he seized it.
The goal, guided into the bottom corner, was his 93rd for his country and his eighth at the World Cup, putting him level with Diego Maradona. It may prove to be one of his most significant too.
Argentina had been awful until that moment but their belief gradually returned after it and when the second goal came it was no surprise to see Messi involved, the 35-year-old feeding Enzo Fernandez, whose stunning finish made the game safe.
Argentina’s work is not done. A difficult final group game against Poland awaits. They will need to show considerable improvement on this performance if they are to navigate it successfully and plot a route into the latter stages of the tournament.
But in Messi, they know they have a trump card, a player who, even at 35, is still capable of elevating them when they need it most. With the Saudi Arabia debacle now behind them, and with Messi chasing his World Cup destiny, Argentina can dream again.
Messi level with Maradona – Opta stats
- Lionel Messi has scored in six successive appearances for Argentina, his joint-longest ever scoring run in international football (also 6 between November 2011 – September 2012).
- Lionel Messi has now scored as many World Cup goals as Diego Maradona (8), with only Gabriel Batistuta (10) netting more for Argentina at the tournament overall.
- Since 1966, only Rivellino (5) has scored more World Cup goals from outside the box than Messi (4).
- Andres Guardado became just the sixth player to feature at five different World Cups (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022) and the third different Mexican to do so after Rafael Márquez and Antonio Carbajal.
- Argentina are unbeaten in their last 11 meetings with Mexico in all competitions (W8 D3) since a 1-0 loss in the 2004 Copa America.