Lionel Messi stood in front of the raging sky-blue and white fan wall, he kissed his hands in the curve, enjoyed the moment of great salvation and called out to his compatriots: “Vamos!”. With his second goal at the World Cup tournament in Qatar, the 35-year-old superstar Argentina paved the way to 2-0 (0-0) in the rock-hard and long tough Latin America summit against Mexico. After Messi’s lead in the 64th minute, Enzo Fernández (87th) scored the decisive goal.
This will now lead to the ultimate showdown with world footballer Robert Lewandowski and his Poles next Wednesday. The Eastern Europeans around the current Barça star have four points, Argentina and Saudi Arabia three, Mexico stays with one. The Poles had previously beaten the Saudis 2-0 and made the group exciting.
A day after Argentinians collectively mourned the second anniversary of Diego Maradona’s death, Messi, his sporting heir, had to put things right. During the anthem, the Argentines demonstratively moved close together, Messi took another deep breath before his 21st World Cup game – as many as Maradona once played, including the victorious World Cup final in 1986.
Messi also wants to reach the final in 2022. And there was already a final match atmosphere in the sold out and loud Lusail Stadium with 88,966 spectators. Not only because it was all or nothing for Messi and his Argentines in the second group game. Tens of thousands of Argentinian fans against tens of thousands from Mexico, that also fueled the heated duel on the pitch, which was not a football feast for a long time.
After less than five minutes, the first tussle: Triggered by an elbow check by Alexis Vega against Gonzalo Montiel, one of the five new players Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni put on the starting lineup four days after the embarrassing 2-1 defeat by outsiders Saudi Arabia had – practically all in the defensive area. Safety first and up front should help Messi.
The range of motion of the 35-year-old – initially manageable. On Tuesday he gave the Argentinians, who had been unbeaten in 36 games, a penalty with his seventh World Cup goal in the 10th minute. This time the first chance to score was a long time coming despite the Argentinians having massive ball possession advantages. In the 25th minute, Messi briefly picked up the pace. The subsequent cross from Montiel was too imprecise.
A rather rare header from Messi a few minutes later went clearly over the goal, a free-kick flick a short time later Guillermo Ochoa punched into the Qatari night sky.
With a five-bar, Mexico wanted to keep the Argentines away from their own goal. And they broke the flow of the game with constant duels, and like the Argentines, they didn’t take the rules as seriously. They were successful with that, another chance through Lautaro Martínez, that’s all the Argentines could do in the first 45 minutes. Coach Scaloni threatened to despair, gesticulating wildly on the sidelines again and again. A gateway to calm the nerves was needed.
Mexico felt it, coach Gerardo Martino knew it. He is Argentinian and coached the team from the summer of 2014 for two years. Before the game, he was whistled at by the South American fans for his involvement with the Mexicans. They then had to hold their breath just before the break: keeper Emiliano Martínez was caught in the air from a free-kick in front of Mexico’s Vega’s sky-blue and white wall.
The Argentines conceded the two goals against the Saudis within a few minutes, this time they were unscathed, but again they did not act convincingly. And then a free kick, Messi was fouled, from behind and from the front. Ideal position: half right, 18 meters. “Messi, Messi” shouts echoed through the stadium, but the ball clearly went over it. Messi leaned forward, supported himself with his hands. Again nothing. Resignation? no
Messi dropped a little further after the break. His strength, get the ball, act fast. Argentina’s game became more dangerous. And once the Mexicans, who otherwise defended so consistently, gave Messi more space than they should have – that was enough.
A good 20 meters from the goal, he took the ball, put it in front of himself and hit the right corner flat to make it 1-0. Ochoa was powerless, Messi turned jubilantly and let himself be celebrated to the deafening cheers of the fans. Mexico tried everything again, Martino made an offensive change. However, a goal was no longer possible, but Fernandez struck.