RAS ABU ABOUD, Qatar — Argentina overcame Lionel Messi’s first-half penalty miss to seal a World Cup round-of-16 clash against Australia after goals by Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez clinched a 2-0 win against Poland on Wednesday.
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The victory ensured top spot in Group C for Argentina, but despite their defeat, Poland sneaked into the knockout rounds for a meeting with France after edging out Mexico on goal difference to finish second in the group.
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1. Messi bailed out by Argentina’s supporting cast
This could have been one of the worst nights of Messi’s glittering career: he saw a penalty saved by Poland keeper Wojciech Szczesny and you can only imagine how crushing it would have been for the Argentina star if his (probably) last shot at a World Cup ended because of his missed spot kick. For once, though, Messi had his teammates to thank, rather than the other way around, for helping Argentina to the win that secures a place in the round of 16 and a clash against Australia.
Messi had won his first-half penalty in dubious circumstances when a VAR review highlighted an apparent foul by Szczesny, but justice was done when the Poland keeper saved. Before any tension set in for the two-time world champions, though, Mac Allister scored a crucial opener in the first minute of the second half. With Argentina still wary of being caught by the sucker punch of a Poland equaliser, Alvarez finally made the game safe with a classy finish on 67 minutes to confirm victory.
Messi, obviously, is still Argentina’s key figure and he ran the game for his team, constantly looking to creating an opening or shot at goal. But this time, his younger teammates carried the load and showed that Argentina can win without their superstar getting on the scoresheet.
2. Poland cling to second in group after nervy second half
Never before has a Saudi Arabia goal been celebrated with such relish by a group of Polish footballers, but Salem Al Dawsari’s injury-time goal for the Green Falcons in their 2-1 defeat against Mexico was enough to confirm Poland’s qualification as Group C runners-up.
With Argentina winning 2-0 in Stadium 974 and Mexico leading 2-0 at Lusail Stadium for the latter stages of the second half, Poland were stuck between contrasting approaches against Lionel Scaloni’s team. They could go for broke and chase the equaliser that would guarantee top spot and a place in the next round, but by doing that, they risked conceding a third goal that would then move Mexico clear on goal difference in second place.
With everything level with Mexico, Poland knew their superior disciplinary record would be enough to take them through if no more goals were scored in either game, but it was a knife-edge existence until Saudi Arabia’s late goal. Seconds after full-time in this game confirmed Poland’s defeat, their players were celebrating their progression to the last 16 on the pitch.
3. Tinkering Scaloni is Argentina’s big weakness
Argentina have made it into the round of 16 as Group C winners despite the influence of coach Scaloni rather than because of it. The former Argentina midfielder has ended the country’s long wait for international success during his four-year spell in charge by overseeing the 2021 Copa America win and he also masterminded the team’s 36-game unbeaten run, which was only ended by Saudi Arabia in the Group C opener last week.
In Qatar, though, it has been a regular guessing game as to which team Scaloni will select and nobody could genuinely say that they know which eleven will start any given game. For Argentina’s players, that kind of uncertainty can be unsettling and it does nothing for consistency.
After losing to Saudi, Scaloni changed three of his back four and two of his midfielders, but after seeing Argentina beat Mexico on the back of those changes, he made four more against Poland. Handing Manchester City’s Alvarez his first start in Qatar paid off with the forward scoring the crucial second goal against the Poles, but we are still waiting to see Paulo Dybala and, at times, Messi looks as though he needs greater support from those around him.
If Argentina are to win this World Cup, Scaloni needs to find a settled team quickly because, without some kind of rhythm and consistency of selection, it will count against them.
Poland: Wojciech Szczesny 7; Matty Cash 7, Kamil Glik 6, Jakub Kiwior 5, Bartosz Bereszynski 5; Grzegorz Krychowiak 6, Piotr Zielinski 6, Przemyslaw Frankowski 6, Krystian Bielik 6; Karol Swiderski 6, Robert Lewandowski 6
Subs: Michal Skoras 6, Jakub Kaminski 6, Damian Szymanski 6, Artur Jedrzejczyk 6, Krzysztof Piatek 6
Argentina: Emiliano Martinez 6; Nahuel Molina 7, Nicolas Otamendi 6, Cristian Romero 6; Rodrigo De Paul 6, Marcos Acuna 6, Alexis Mac Allister 8, Enzo Fernandez 7; Julian Alvarez 7, Lionel Messi 7, Angel Di Maria 6
Subs: Leandro Paredes 7, Nicolas Tagliafico 6, Lautaro Martinez 6, German Pezzella 6, Thiago Almada 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Alexis Mac Allister, Argentina. The Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder scored the crucial opening goal for Argentina, but he also provided energy and advancing runs to break the Polish back line. A big performance.
WORST: Jakub Kiwior, Poland. All of Argentina’s most dangerous attacks were down Poland’s left flank, including the cross for Mac Allister’s goal. Left-back Kiwior was the weak link for the Poles.
Highlights and notable moments
Messi may be the GOAT, but Szczesny turned in a GOAT performance on Wednesday.
Wojciech Szczesny told everyone to calm down before he saved Messi’s penalty 🥶 pic.twitter.com/AIFA2wBQAe
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 30, 2022
The moment that sent Argentina through to the round of 16. We all predicted it would be Mac Allister saving the day for the Albiceleste, right?
THERE IT IS 🔥
ARGENTINA TAKES THE LEAD pic.twitter.com/8uDkGnC5Tt
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 30, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Poland manager Czeslaw Michniewicz on what he told his players about picking up needless yellow cards: “I told the players to avoid stupid cards. We were afraid that maybe one of the players would get a card. We told them to not talk to the referee, not to pull shirts.”
Michniewicz: “Is that it? It’s really late. The prime minister is calling and I can’t answer.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
– Szczesny is the third goalkeeper to save two penalties in one World Cup (Brad Friedel for the United States in 2002 and Jan Tomaszewski for Poland in 1974).
– Messi is the first player to have two penalties saved at the World Cup (excluding shootouts).
– Alvarez’s goal was his third in his past five matches for Argentina and his fourth career internationally.
– Poland will make their first appearance in the knockout rounds since 1986.
Poland: The Poles made it out of the group by the finest of margins, and their reward is a round-of-16 matchup with defending champions France on Sunday at 10 a.m. ET.
Argentina: The Albiceleste topped Group C after starting off their tournament with defeat to Saudi Arabia, and will now take on Australia on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET.