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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# Evolution
Messi's mixed night a good sign for Argentina in win over dismal Poland
Messi missed a penalty but his side topped their World Cup group with a 2-0 win.

Poland 0 

Argentina 2

HEY, EVEN GOD took a rest day. 

This was a game to mint the pre-tournament consensus: here we have an Argentina team no longer clinging hysterically to Lionel Messi’s coat-tails but instead one that has taken time to build the scaffolding around him. 

Tonight they progressed to a last-16 tie against Australia as group winners almost in spite of him, Messi’s first-half penalty miss made moot by second half goals by Alexis Macallister and Julian Alvarez, neither of which The Great Man was involved in. Poland eventually progressed with them, ending the game huddled on the pitch, praying a late Mexico goal would not eliminate them on Goals Scored having initially fretted about being separated by their total of yellow cards. 

Salem Al-Daswari’s 95th-minute goal for Saudi Arabia allowed them breathe an enormous sigh of relief and stumble forth to a meeting with France. 

Watching Messi makes you realise that he no longer has to worry about where the ball is, but instead is preoccupied by where he will next move. Where everyone else starts a game Messi eases his way into it, walking about nonplussed, throwing his head over his shoulder, the Confused Travolta Meme in a football shirt. He does this to effectively download the schematics of the game, foraging for space. After a few minutes he spotted some prime real estate halfway between the middle of the pitch and the right-hand touchline, and it was from that position he spun a few deadly, cross-field iron shots to the surging left-back Marcos Acuna, whose end product was generally terrible. At one point Angel Di Maria switched to that flank to make more of Messi’s deliciously accurate passes, but a corner was his best reward.

When Messi accelerated to the penalty area he found team-mates unable to link up with him: playing a quick one-two with the leaden-footed Rodrigo de Paul is like attempting one against a pebble dash wall. 

wcup-poland-argentina-soccer Natacha Pisarenko The penalty incident. Natacha Pisarenko

But soon he had a chance to score without needing any of his team-mates, awarded a baffling penalty. Who needs the Hand of God when you’ve got the distant, benevolent hand of VAR? When Julian Alvarez’ followed up his blocked shot by standing a cross to the back post, Szczesny attempted to punch the ball clear but instead lightly brushed Messi’s nose. The referee looked at the monitor and then made history in deeming Wojciech Szczesny to be the first player in World Cup history to concede a penalty for Blasphemy. 

Messi stood up to take the penalty, his expression losing his characteristic insouciance and replaced with a kind of clammy insecurity. He twice glanced at Szczesny’s left before planting his penalty exactly there, where it was met by the goalkeeper’s giant hand. Far from apostasy, the Argentina fans incanted ‘Messi, Messi’ in response, palms outstretched as they bowed before him.

Having spent the first-time funnelling their attacks down the left wing, Messi watched Argentina carve Poland open down the right flank less than a minute after the break, Nahuel Molina’s pull-back met by Brighton’s Alexis Macallister, who screwed the ball in off the post. The second goal was also light on Messi, Enzo Fernandez’ threaded through-ball curled into the top corner of the net by Julian Alvarez. 

wcup-poland-argentina-soccer Natacha Pisarenko Alexis Macallister celebrates the opening goal. Natacha Pisarenko

Messi continued to drop off and conduct play, spinning a spectacular pass wide left for Nico Tagliafico, whose pull-back was missed by Macallister. The game wended to a leaden end as Poland turned it into a bloodless farce, desperately trying to protect their lead while counting yellow cards. They came nervously close to a deserved exit in stoppage time, heading an Argentina effort off the line after they were unlocked by another sumptuous Messi pass to the left wing. 

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Messi did at least betray a fitting disgust at the Polish performance, when he was clawed at in midfield by Robert Lewandowski, eventually moving the referee to whistle for a free-kick with a withering glance. Lewandowski held out a hand in apology, which Messi ignored. 

As Poland huddled together on the pitch waiting for word from the group’s other game, Messi ambled with his team-mates to soak in the crowd’s acclaim. 

The reverence for Messi is pure, but the reliance upon him may be diminishing. 

That same esteem is held by his manager, too. Lionel Scaloni was asked after the game whether he considered substituting Messi to give him a rest before the meeting with Australia. 

“No, I wouldn’t substitute him unless he told me to.” 

Updated with quote at 11pm 

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