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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
# the dream survives
Messi magnificent as Argentina hold on to beat Australia
Messi scored the opening goal as his side advanced to a quarter-final meeting with the Netherlands.

Argentina 2

Australia 1

LEO’S HEADY, BRITTLE dream lives on, Argentina now guaranteed to be among the last eight standing in Qatar after a win over Australia that was comfortable until Enzo Fernandez’ unfortunate own goal put a knife to Argentina’s throat. 

Argentina took that knife and defended with it between their teeth, but needed Emi Martinez to make a stunning last-gasp save in the seventh minute of stoppage time to secure a victory they both deeply yearned and deserved. 

Their manner of holding out should encourage them: Christian Romero, Lisandro Martinez and Nicolas Otamendi attacked balls with manic conviction while Messi was utterly magnificent in the endgame, running himself into the ground, torturing defenders and laying chances on a plate for Lautaro Martinez to inexplicably miss. Time stood still when the ball fell in the box to Kuol, but Martinez’ block gives a nation reason to lay themselves at Messi’s feet for another few days at least. 

Here The Great Man scored the opening goal before Julian Alvarez mocked Australia goalkeeper Matt Ryan in scoring a second goal that proved to be the winner. To see the Argentina fans literally bowing in worship at Messi from the stands should end all claims that he is embraced more coldly than Diego Maradona ever was. That is partly because Leo is now borrowing a little of Diego’s greatness: now he too is able to change the course of a game with displays of emotion, in this case a single flare of his nostrils. 

Argentina, without the injured Angel Di Maria, started the game lifelessly, lacking all vim and zip and handing Australia an avenue into the game. It was just after the half-hour mark that Messi decided to change it all by doing something desperate: he chased a lost cause into the right-hand channel and won a throw-in. As the ball rolled out, Australia’s Aziz Behich tried to pull at Messi’s shirt, wherepon Messi reacted by shoving him away. The crowd, dulled to silence to that point, instantly stood to frenzy as Messi strutted away with hands raised in mock innocence. Behich, incensed and humiliated, instantly kicked Papu Gomez into the air to give Argentina a free-kick.

Messi’s delivery was wicked but half-cleared, and he then popped a pass to Macallister and ran into the box to take a return that instead bounced off Nicolas Otamendi. It meant Messi had to slightly adjust his stride and ensure his touch kept the ball from under his feet. He did both, of course, sweeping the ball beyond Matt Ryan. The Argentine fans responded in kind, bowing from the stands in supplication. 

argentina-v-australia-fifa-world-cup-2022-round-of-16-ahmad-bin-ali-stadium PA Lionel Messi is hoisted high by Julian Alvarez. PA

Behich slunk away. You come for the king, you best not miss. It was fitting in a way: this late-stage version of Messi is separated by the earlier models by his levels of expression. He will never match Maradona’s exuberance of emotion – El Diego was a playmaker-cum-national-id-incarnate – but now Messi is louder, more vocal: he constantly exhorts team-mates, and here he belted out the national anthem and then led the celebrations. 

Moments after the first goal, the Argentine fans felt a stab of inward breath as Souttar left Messi in a heap, clutching his ankle. It was less a tackle than it was an act of vandalism, but Messi mercifully picked himself up. 

Lionel Scaloni swapped Papu Gomez for Lisandro Martinez at half-time and switched to a back three but it looked for a while that he could instead rely on an Aussie implosion to see out the game. Rodrigo de Paul and Julian Alvarez – partly in the team because their ferocious running compensates for Messi’s regal trot – charged down Matt Ryan and when the goalkeeper spent a clumsy touch to get by De Paul, Alvarez pinched the ball and screwed the ball slowly into the bottom corner. The ball went in so slowly that there were several rising octaves to the Argentine supporters’ celebrations. 

Argentina were so comfortable, Messi skating away on a lengthy dribble which didn’t bring a goal but did trigger another ritual of reverence from the crowd until, from nowhere, Australia got back into the game. Craig Goodwin’s shot from distance looked to be flying wide until it hit Enzo Fernandez and cannoned cruelly into the net.

This was now a major test of Argentina’s hitherto brittle emotions, and only a stunning last-ditch tackle by Lisandro Martinez stopped Behich scoring one of the truly great World Cup goals, dribbling in from the left wing and leaving a trail of Argentine defenders in his wake. 

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Lautaro Martinez should have eased all fears before the game went to stoppage time, ruining Messi’s stunning dribble and soft pass by skewing the ball into the stand. Messi was truly amazing in the closing minutes, swanning by defenders and setting up Martinez to miss another couple of chances before he leased back the hearts he has stolen to allow them abruptly jump into mouths. 

Souttar was repositioned up front and Argentina defended all crosses brilliantly aside from the very last, which was plucked out of the sky by Newcastle-bound Kuol, his liquid touch and spin followed by a shot than Martinez blocked brilliantly. 

argentina-v-australia-fifa-world-cup-2022-round-of-16-ahmad-bin-ali-stadium PA Australia coach Graham Arnold flanked by Harry Souttar and Kyle Rowles after the game. PA

It was the final act of what was Messi’s 1000th senior game, featuring as it did goal number 798. But the only stat that truly matters is that his next game will be in Qatar. 

This intoxicating tornado of worship and deep desire goes on and who knows who might get swept along in its force. Argentina are flawed but tonight at least proved that it won’t be them. 

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