Match report as Argentina overcome a sluggish start and a stubborn Australia side; goals from Lionel Messi and Julian Alvarez help set up a 2-1 win and a quarter-final against the Netherlands
Sunday 4 December 2022 07:40, UK
Lionel Messi starred as Argentina progressed to the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a 2-1 win over Australia.
Messi marked the 1,000th senior game of his career with a measured finish for the breakthrough goal late in the first half, and Mat Ryan's error allowed Julian Alvarez to double the advantage early in the second.
There were late scares for Argentina after Craig Goodwin's shot deflected in off Enzo Fernandez, and it needed a dramatic tackle from Lisandro Martinez and a fine save from Emiliano Martinez for them to hold on.
It was a spirited effort from Graham Arnold's side, who can be proud of their tournament, but it is Messi and Argentina who will face the Netherlands in the last eight. This is not always a fluent Argentina side but with the little genius in the team they can dream.
Aziz Behich may regret his decision to confront Messi. With the game surprisingly sterile, a rare bit of pressing from the Argentina captain prompted the left-back to square up to him and then give away a foolish free-kick soon after. The game changed. The goal followed.
Once ahead, Argentina introduced Lisandro Martinez and reverted to three at the back just as they had when leading Mexico. It was a cautious move but Lionel Scaloni appears determined to learn the lesson of that defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening game.
There seemed little threat of a repeat once Ryan had erred. Closed down by Alvarez and Rodrigo de Paul, his misguided attempt to dribble between them proved costly. Alvarez dispossessed him and the Manchester City striker then finished neatly.
But when Goodwin's wild effort deflected in off Fernandez there was a twist. The game opened up and Messi took it up a level, twice setting up Lautaro Martinez only for the striker to waste the opportunities. Incredibly, that almost proved costly because Australia had chances, too.
Behich went on a mazy run that almost brought the equaliser only for Lisandro Martinez to block his shot at the last. And with the final kick of the game Newcastle United teenager Garang Kuol had a shot well saved by the Argentina goalkeeper.
What drama. But it was Messi smiling at the end.
This was Messi's best game of the tournament. He had the most shots and created the most chances. It needed his magic to unlock Australia and once the game opened up he was really able to enjoy himself. The hope for Argentina is that it is a sign of what is to come.
Argentina have been strong favourites in every game so far and a feature of these matches has been Messi's attempts to find space when the opposition is set on stifling him. But if Argentina go all the way in Qatar there will be different types of tests ahead.
His performance once his team were ahead might be a hint of how dangerous he could become in the latter stages of this World Cup. If opponents pursue a more open game against Argentina then that could be a big mistake because Messi is still on it.
Messi described Argentina's relationship with their fans as "something beautiful" when receiving his player of the match award afterwards.
"These are amazing feelings. I'm really happy to share this beautiful moment, these happy moments with them all.
"The effort they are making to be here with us in every single match. I know how much they enjoy it back in Argentina.
"The whole of Argentina would like to be here, but it's not possible. I think there's this bond that we have, this union, which is something beautiful.
"It's unbelievable what they transmit, the passion, their energy, their joy and we're very thankful. It's unbelievable."
"We are very satisfied," said Scaloni afterwards. "It was a very challenging game and very useful to understand how difficult this competition is. They pressed us. They were fresher than us. The first half was tough but Messi scored the opening goal and we improved.
"We adapted a few things, bringing on Lisandro Martinez. I thought we needed to look for something different and I think that we improved with this substitution. I don't think we deserved to suffer as we did in the last minutes because we had chances before that.
"Angel Di Maria was unfit today. Hopefully he will be able to play in the next game. It is always tempting to bring him on when he is on the bench but I don't think we would have been helping anyone to bring him. We hope that he keeps evolving and will be ready soon."