AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Argentina edged past Australia 2-1 on Saturday at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium to tee up a World Cup quarterfinal clash with the Netherlands.
Goals from Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez saw coach Lionel Scaloni’s side through against a spirited Socceroos side who had chances to force the match into extra time.
Messi’s opener in the 35th minute was the sole shot on goal from either side in the first half, while Alvarez profited on a goalkeeping error from the usually dependable Mathew Ryan to score Argentina’s second after 57 minutes.
Australia pinned one back with a deflected effort from Craig Goodwin in the 77th minute ricocheting off Enzo Fernandez for an own goal and had a glorious chance after Aziz Behich’s wondrous run. Both teams had chances in the final throes of the match with Lautaro Martinez firing over from close range, while Thomas Deng had an effort well-saved by Emiliano Martinez in the last play of the match.
1. Messi sparks Argentina after the first-half tussle
It was all going to plan for Australia until they poked Lionel Messi.
It was in the 36th minute. Australia were holding Argentina, having restricted them to one long-range effort from Papu Gomez that troubled the corner flag more than anyone near the goal. So far, so good. But then Aziz Behich annoyed him. There was a tussle on the touchline, shirts pulled. Messi stood over the free kick. The first attempt was cleared.
But then he sparked it into life. He found Alexis Mac Allister, who nudged it to Julian Alvarez. Alvarez laid it off to Messi who shimmied and fired past Ryan. It was another trademark brilliant moment for the man who still holds matches in the palm of his hand.
But you feel Argentina haven’t yet got the best out of Messi at this World Cup. He’s more a playmaker, master orchestral conductor, these days rather than the firecracker. And he needs players running off him to allow him to bring the match to life. While Alvarez offered this, Gomez didn’t. Argentina need to address this ahead of the Netherlands, but this again was Messi’s night.
Messi has already had countless milestone moments in his record-breaking career. But there were a couple more tonight. Firstly, this was his 1,000th professional match. He also tied Paolo Maldini for the third most games played in the men’s World Cup — he now stands on 23 matches, behind Miroslav Klose’s 24 and Lothar Matthaus’ 25.
If Argentina are still here come Dec. 18 with the trophy on the line, then Messi will break that record, much to the delight of his devoted fans.
2. Scaloni settles on midfield but Di Maria missed
After all the tinkering across the group stage, it looked like Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni had calmed down. He made just one change from the win over Poland with Angel di Maria out injured, which meant he kept the faith in the same midfield trio of Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo de Paul.
All three played a key role in the match and looked a settled unit. De Paul was the standout of the three — and it was his pressing that caused keeper Maty Ryan to make his calamitous error to gift Julian Alvarez Argentina’s second. Mac Allister has a wonderful ability to create space through his movement off the ball, and with it. While Fernandez played in a deeper role in the first half, he pushed further forward in the second half. They should now be given the same opportunity to continue against the Netherlands.
But if there’s one area where they still look a little weak — alongside the dodgy finish to the match — it’s the role usually commanded by Di Maria. Papu Gomez played there in the first half but was largely anonymous. After 47 minutes, Scaloni replaced him with defender Lisandro Martinez. It was an intriguing call as it saw Argentina shift to a back five in a system very similar to how their upcoming quarterfinal opponents play.
Perhaps this was Scaloni seeing how they’d fare going head-to-head against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands side. Or maybe it was just Scaloni wanting his team to shut the game down. Either way, they lost their grip on the match. That attacking balance still needs refining.
While Alvarez’s spot is cemented in after an assured performance, they desperately need to get Lautaro Martinez back on form as he spurned an incredible chance in the 88th minute, firing over from close range. So if Di Maria remains injured, Scaloni has two options: either stick with the back five or call on Angel Correa, Thiago Almada, Lautaro Martinez or Gomez again. It’s not a straightforward call.
3. Socceroos nearly pulled off with late surge
Amid the Messi devotees mixed with the boisterous and bouncing Albiceleste fans at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, there were little pockets of green and yellow scattered through the crowd. Many Australia supporters would admit that pre-tournament, they’d have hoped to be here for a knockout match watching their Socceroos — but it’d been more hope than expectation. But they pushed Argentina all the way, and had chances to force this game into extra time.
All this after a remarkable group stage where they bounced back from a 4-1 hammering to France — something manager Graham Arnold tried to compartmentalize as “the best friendly we could have” — to then beat Tunisia 1-0 and edge past Denmark with the same scoreline.
Those were wins based on organization, complete trust in one other, and focus — though that lack of precision let them down for Argentina’s second on Saturday evening. But they had their chances and moments. The Fernandez own goal gave them life, and Aziz Behich nearly flipped the script when he ran through the entire Argentina defense — oh to see him on the left wing rather than at full-back! — only to see his final goal-bound effort blocked by Lisandro Martinez. And then there was that last-gasp chance for Alou Kuol.
There have been memories to hold on to for a lifetime (like Mathew Leckie’s winner against Denmark) and performances that will earn players moves to bigger and better things — take defender Harry Souttar for one. So on this wonderful, extended journey, Australia made their presence known at the World Cup, and back home where despite the awful time difference, fans watched their team in front of vast screens in public areas in the dead of night.
The Australian players weren’t overawed against Argentina; they frustrated the favorites but were simply outplayed.
Argentina: Emiliano Martínez 7, Nahuel Molina 6, Cristian Romero 6, Nicolas Otamendi 7, Marcos Acuña 6, Rodrigo De Paul 8, Enzo Fernandez 7, Alexis Mac Allister 7, Lionel Messi 8, Julian Alvarez 7, Papu Gomez 5
Subs: Lisandro Martinez 7, Lautaro Martinez 5, Nicolas Tagliafico 6, Exequiel Palacios, 6, Gonzalo Martiel 6.
Australia: Mathew Ryan 6, Milos Degenek 6, Harry Souttar 7, Kye Rowles 7, Aziz Behich 8, Matthew Leckie 6, Aaron Mooy 6, Jackson Irvine 6, Keanu Baccus 6, Riley McGree 6, Mitchell Duke 6.
Subs: Craig Goodwin 7, Ajdin Hrustic 6, Garang Kuol 6, Jamie Maclaren 6, Fran Karacic 6.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Lionel Messi, Argentina.
It’s horribly predictable, but it simply must be Messi. He was the standout player and him receiving Player of the Match is one of the few guarantees in this roller-coaster World Cup.
WORST: Mathew Ryan, Australia.
After a steady tournament, unfortunately, Australia’s keeper Ryan had a moment to forget as it was his stumble that allowed Alvarez to score Argentina’s second.
Highlights and notable moments
A precise touch from Messi, giving him 789 goals (94 with Argentina, 672 with Barcelona, and 23 with Paris Saint-Germain) in 1,000 games as a professional.
After the match: What the players and managers said
Argentina captain Lionel Messi, on the win: “I am very happy for taking another step forward, achieving another objective. It was a very strong and difficult match — we knew it was going to be this way. We didn’t have much time to rest up and we were concerned as we knew it was going to be a physical match and they were very strong.”
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, on Di Maria’s absence: “Hopefully Di Maria will be able to play [against the Netherlands], he wasn’t fit today. It’s always tempting to bring him on when he’s on the bench, but I don’t think we’d have helped anyone by bringing him on. We hope he continues evolving and makes it to the next match.”
Australia coach Graham Arnold, on the defeat: “I just said to the boys I couldn’t be more proud of the effort and everything they gave to me, and to the nation. It’s been a 4½-year journey, a tough journey for everyone, but we’re a bit disappointed as we could’ve got something more out of it. But I hope Australia is proud of these players. I thank them for all their work, the effort they put in through this campaign, but it’s about making the nation proud and I’m sure we did that.”
– Having now played in five World Cups, it was Lionel Messi’s ninth goal in the tournament and his first in the knockout rounds. He surpasses Diego Maradona and Guillermo Stabile for second-most all-time in World Cup goals for Argentina, just one behind Gabriel Batistuta.
– Argentina will face the Netherlands for a sixth time at a World Cup, the most notable being the 1978 encounter won as hosts. The only team Argentina has faced more in the tournament’s history is Germany (7).
Argentina: Next up will be a quarterfinal match against the Netherlands, who defeated the United States earlier in the day, on Dec. 9.
Australia: End of the road for the Socceroos in Qatar after getting to the knockout rounds for just the second time ever at a World Cup.
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