Lionel Messi scored on his 1,000th career appearance to put Argentina in the driving seat against Australia, and Julian Alvarez added a second, but Lionel Scaloni’s side were pushed all the way in the second half.
A deflected effort by Craig Goodwin reduced the deficit and future Newcastle United player Garang Kuol forced an excellent save from Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez in the dying moments of the game.
Argentina will play the Netherlands next in the quarter-finals on Friday.
Mark Carey, Andy Jones, Felipe Cardenas and Jay Harris analyze the key talking points…
Messi’s 1,000th appearance
Carey: How many different ways can you revel in the majesty of Lionel Messi?
In today’s episode, we celebrate Messi’s 1,000th career appearance in all competitions for club and country. Unsurprisingly, his attacking output in that time has been staggering.
Not just staggering across one or two years, not even staggering across four or five. Most professional footballers can only dream of having the goalscoring consistency that Messi has shown throughout his career — and that is before we even discuss his other-worldly playmaking qualities.
A career-high of 91 goals in 69 games in 2012 is a simply ludicrous return. A rate of 1.3 goals per game across an entire year is breathtaking, with Messi not falling below a rate of one goal every other game in a calendar year since 2008.
Let that sink in.
How did he celebrate his 1,000th appearance? With a goal, of course. His 789th career goal was an archetypal Messi finish, but interestingly it was his first goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup.
It’s fair to say that neutral fans will hope to witness Messi’s 1,001st, 1,002nd, and 1,003rd appearances happen in this tournament as he fights to lift the World Cup for the first time.
Australia fall short despite late rally
Jones: For 35 minutes Australia’s strategy had been going well. Their shape, so compact and disciplined, was blunting Argentina and they were beginning to grow in confidence.
In a 4-4-2, out of possession, they crowded out Messi, shut down passing lanes and broke up play effectively with energy and intensity. The problem is, when playing against Messi, even when you are practically perfect, he can make the difference.
After one off-target shot and an expected goals total of just 0.07, Australia had to be more expansive. But when and how? Keeping the scoreline as it was before throwing the kitchen sink at it later on made sense.
Mat Ryan’s error put paid to that as Julian Alvarez made it 2-0 but when Goodwin’s shot deflected off Fernandez into the net, an injection of belief and energy followed. A team that had looked toothless finally posed a threat. The plan was somehow still on and they opened up with Aaron Mooy trying to pull the strings from deep.
Aziz Behich almost turned into Messi but Lisandro Martinez’s last-ditch tackle denied him. There was little after that, even with the 6ft 7in centre-back Harry Souttar going up front, as they struggled to keep possession and build pressure, until Martinez denied Garang Kuol with a huge save at the death. Too little too late.
The stadium shakes for Messi
Cárdenas: Messi’s goal in the 35th minute woke up an Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium that had fallen rather flat. Argentina were struggling to find their groove until Messi found the ball inside Australia’s penalty area. Two touches later, the ball was skipping past Aussie goalkeeper Ryan. Argentina had their goal and their supporters lost their minds.
The stadium shook as the Argentinians bounced up and down throughout the stadium. The roar was steady, almost deafening. Messi had raised the decibel levels single-handedly.
Replays of the goal streamed on the small screens in the media tribune. It was a classic Messi finish. An Argentine journalist pumped his fists. The fans in light blue and white sang loudly for nine straight minutes!
It was an incredible scene.
Jones: If you hadn’t watched Argentina’s first two games of the tournament, you would be shocked to learn that neither starting line-up featured Enzo Fernandez.
Messi is the man everything revolves around, but if you are looking for the centerpiece, the player who keeps everything together, then look no further than Fernandez. The metronome, who makes his team tick.
Since his impact off the bench against Mexico, where he scored the second goal in the 2-0 win, he has been one of Argentina’s most impressive players.
There is little expanse to his role, although he has it in his locker (see his assist against Poland), but the fact he still stands out by just, primarily, doing the simple things, speaks volumes. Sitting at the base of the midfield, he is happy to take the ball and move it quickly, frequently dropping between his centre-backs.
He provides the platform for those in front, especially Messi, to do their thing while patrolling and snuffing out anything coming in the other direction with an intensity Argentina as a team can lack, like in the first half an hour against Australia.
The one blemish on his evening came when Goodwin’s shot deflected off him and beat Martinez but it’s still easy to see why there is so much interest in the 21-year-old.
Leckie failed to repeat Denmark’s heroics
Harris: Mathew Leckie, Australia’s star in the shock 1-0 victory over Denmark which secured them passage into the knockout stages, needed to repeat his heroics against Argentina, but he was extremely passive.
The former Borussia Monchengladbach and Hertha Berlin winger was supposed to offer Graham Arnold’s side a threat on the counter with his speed. Marcos Acuna, Argentina’s left-back, pushes up extremely high so Leckie, who plays on the right, should have flourished in the space he vacated, yet failed to make an impact. He only had 29 touches, although three of them were in the opposition box, and struggled to link up with Mitchell Duke and Riley McGree.
Australia caused their opponents more problems when Arnold made bold substitutions to bring on Goodwin, Kuol and Jamie Maclaren. Goodwin’s long-range strike, which took a huge deflection off Fernandez, offered them hope, but they will be forever wondering ‘what if’ about Kuol’s late shot which Martinez saved.
Argentina are yet to fully convince for 90 minutes
Carey: To win any major tournament, the football doesn’t always have to be free-flowing and the performances don’t always have to be world-class. Pragmatism can be the order of the day for most successful parties. However, despite Argentina’s progression into the quarter-finals, you could strongly argue that they are yet to truly convince in this tournament.
But for some near-guaranteed Messi magic in the first half, Argentina were kept at arm’s length by Australia for long periods, and a mistake by goalkeeper Ryan gifted them a second goal.
Granted, the game was stretched in the final moments as Australia threw everything at Argentina but for 30 minutes in the second half, Australia gave Argentina a scare and almost got an equalizer after Fernandez’s own goal.
Argentina seems to be a side that plays in moments within this tournament. They have the technicians in their team, but it doesn’t quite feel like it’s knitting together coherently at the moment. That will need to change if they are going to go all the way.
(Photo: Francois Nel/Getty Images)