Match report as goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez seal a 2-0 win for Argentina over Poland; Lionel Messi shone but missed a first-half penalty; Poland advanced to last 16 on goal difference ahead of Mexico
Thursday 1 December 2022 10:53, UK
Lionel Messi missed a penalty but Argentina still clinched top spot in Group C with a 2-0 win over Poland, who squeezed into the last 16 on goal difference ahead of Mexico on a night of high drama.
Argentina went into the game a point behind Poland knowing a second-placed finish would pit them against France in the last 16, but goals from Alexis Mac Allister (46) and Julian Alvarez (67) after Wojciech Szczesny had saved a contentious Messi penalty secured a deserved win which means they will face Australia instead.
For Poland, qualification was hanging in the balance right until the end, Czeslaw Michniewicz's side sensationally set to advance on fair play points before Saudi Arabia's stoppage-time goal in their 2-1 loss to Mexico put the Poles through on goal difference.
Poland played out the final stages of their game knowing another goal for either Argentina or Mexico would knock them out of the competition, and needed a goalline clearance from Jakub Kiwior in stoppage time to keep the deficit at only two.
With Mexico ultimately only winning by a single goal, however, and despite a poor Poland performance in which Robert Lewandowski did not even register a shot, the Poles did just enough to set up a meeting with reigning champions France on Sunday in what will be their first World Cup knockout game since 1986.
Argentina totally dominated the game from the outset, with Messi, clearly determined to build on his match-winning display against Mexico following the shock loss to Saudi Arabia, forcing a smart save from Szczesny with a powerful early effort.
The 35-year-old was Argentina's main creative outlet too, popping up in midfield areas and repeatedly picking out team-mates in dangerous positions, only for the finish to be lacking.
Alvarez, selected up front in place of Lautaro Martinez, spurned a fine opportunity from a Molina cut-back, his low effort blocked by a Poland defender when he should have scored, with Marcos Acuna then firing narrowly wide from the follow up.
Acuna wasted two other chances from Messi passes and Alvarez was denied twice more in the first half too, the Manchester City striker seeing a one-on-one effort blocked by Szczesny, then having another effort parried.
It was Messi, though, who missed Argentina's biggest opportunity, his spot kick brilliantly saved by Szczesny following a VAR check which saw the Poland 'keeper harshly deemed to have fouled the Paris Saint-Germain striker as he headed a cross wide.
Poland boss Michniewicz made a double substitution at the break in an attempt to change the course of the game, throwing on Michal Skoras and Jakub Kaminski to support the isolated Lewandowksi, but Argentina's opener arrived within a minute.
Brighton's Mac Allister scored it, finding the bottom corner with a scuffed finish from Nahuel Molina's precise cut-back for his first international goal.
Kamil Glik headed a rare Poland chance wide from a free-kick soon afterwards, but it was all Argentina otherwise, with Mac Allister threatening a second before Alvarez finally got his goal, collecting an Enzo Fernandez pass and curling home brilliantly.
Poland were hugely fortunate not to concede again, with Sczesny denying the brilliant Messi, who put on a passing masterclass as he continued his chase for the one trophy that has eluded him.
There were further opportunities for Alvarez and substitutes Martinez and Nicolas Tagliafico, too, with the latter's effort requiring a dramatic goalline clearance from Kiwior in the third minute of stoppage time.
In the end, though, Poland held on, claiming a place in the last 16 that their performance hardly merited. They will need to be much better if they are to have any hope against France.
Argentina go through as Group C winners with six points from their three games, while Poland go through as runners-up with four points, advancing ahead of Mexico, who join Saudi Arabia in crashing out of the competition on goal difference.
Argentina will now face Group D runners-up Australia in their last 16 game on Saturday, kicking off at 7pm, while Poland come up against Group D winners France on Sunday, kicking off at 3pm.
There was no goal for Lionel Messi. That despite a total of seven shots, one of which was a penalty brilliantly saved by Wojciech Szczesny. But this was a performance to suggest he may yet be destined to carry Argentina to the biggest prize of them all.
The 35-year-old, fresh from scoring the sensational long-range strike which helped Lionel Scaloni's side overcome Mexico in their last game, produced his best display yet at the tournament, the missed spot kick a blot that ultimately did not matter.
That was largely because of everything else he did.
The records will show Messi had no hand in the goals, with Enzo Fernandez and Nahuel Molina the men to claim the assists for Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez. But even if the last pass wasn't always his, Messi was involved at some point in almost every attack.
He had struggled to exert his usual influence against Saudi Arabia and Mexico but not this time. Messi had 98 touches, around 50 per cent more than in either of Argentina's previous games, and that total included 13 in the Poland box.
It was further back, though, in between the lines, that Messi produced most of his best work, producing a masterclass in distribution as Poland's discombobulated defenders found themselves completely unable to keep up with him.
Some of his passes were sublime and, in addition to his seven shots, the statistics showed he was directly responsible for creating five scoring chances - two more than anyone else on the pitch.
There were even five dribbles - more than twice as many as any other player on either side. At times, the feints, shimmies and sudden bursts of acceleration harked back to his glorious peak.
The question now is whether, at 35, the climax of his extraordinary career is still to come. This Argentina side are flawed in many ways. But they also have Messi. With him in this kind of mood, fuelled by an irresistible sense of destiny, they are serious contenders.
Poland head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said his "heart stopped" during the anxious closing stages of the 2-0 defeat as his side's qualification hopes went to the wire and midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak's yellow card lessened their fair play advantage.
"We had an agreement that only me and the technical staff would be across what was happening in the Mexico match, at one point in time I did pass on some information to Robert [Lewandowski]," he said.
"My heart stopped a bit when Grzegorz Krychowiak was booked, we knew it was minus three points and fair play was already taken into consideration.
"So Piotr Zielinski was supposed to leave but we substituted Krychowiak because for five minutes we didn't have control of the game and couldn't make the substitution, while he was endangered by the second yellow card.
"My technical staff told me there was only a difference of two or three yellow cards so it was very close, we were at a difficult time when it was 2-0.
"The mistake of Krychowiak could have made us go back to the hotel and pack but now I hear we are going to play France.
"I told them to avoid stupid cards, we were doing anything to avoid any provocation, avoid talking to referees."
He added: "We lost the game, it is very important but sometimes those defeats are bittersweet - or bitter and sweet - this was our case, we lost but we went through.
"After many, many years we went through to the next stage, I would like to congratulate my whole team and staff.
"We are very happy about it, we have worked hard, we have gained four points, the rules have been clear from the very beginning, we knew what was counted was the goals but also the yellow cards."
Brighton's Alexis Mac Allister described his goalscoring performance, as Argentina booked their place in the last 16, as a "dream come true" after the game.
"We wanted to compensate for that defeat [against Saudi Arabia]," he said. "In the second group game, we found the calm we needed.
"Today, it was a great team game, the best of the group, it gives us great confidence to have played well. We were always positive, we were calm. Leo's penalty didn't get us down, neither the team nor Leo.
"It's so emotional for me [to score], and for the whole squad. We achieved the first goal, of coming top in the first round. It's a dream come true. Debuting with this team was such a pride for me, so imagine scoring a goal in a World Cup.
"I'm so happy, now we just have to rest and prepare for the next match."
Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni added: "Maybe we didn't play that well against Saudi Arabia but we had the chances to win.
"We ended up losing, so all matches are tough and if you think that the match against Australia is going to be easy you are wrong.
"When you are defeated you have to move on, you can't keep thinking about that defeat - we had two more games to play and we have gone through now. We knew we had to win the remaining games."