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Messi eyeing fairy-tale ending with improving Argentina

December 4, 2022

Lionel Messi scored his first World Cup knockout goal to help Argentina edge into the quarterfinals in Qatar with a nervy 2-1 win over Australia. The striker is aiming to lift the World Cup at the fifth time of asking.

Lionel Messi celebrates
"Messi, Messi, Messi" was the chant from the stands as Lionel Messi and Argentina celebrated reaching the World Cup quarterfinalsImage: Nigel Keene/firo Sportphoto/picture alliance

In need of a moment of magic to spark Argentina into life, it was almost guaranteed that captain and talisman Lionel Messi would be the man to step up, again.

Having had just a solitary shot in an uninspired opening half an hour against a dogged Australian side, it felt like destiny when Messi received the ball 15 yards out from goal.

With the silkiest of touches, the 35-year-old scored his first ever goal in the World Cup knockout stages, in his 1000th career match, to further embolden the belief that if the two-time World Champions are to see another star emblazoned on their national shirts, the hope rests firmly on their diminutive forward's dancing feet.

In front a packed Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, housing almost exclusively Argentina fans aside from the small pocket of yellow-shirted Australians, Messi breathed a sigh of relief, admitting "there were a few scary moments, but we made it through. We have to play every three days but we're looking forward to playing in front of our fans. We have to continue standing together as a team." 

Argentina's path to this year's final at Lusail Stadium seems to be playing out in an eerily similar fashion to 2014 in Brazil, where Messi scored four goals and bagged an assist across the seven matches, as he proved the heartbeat of a team that ultimately fell short to Germany in extra-time.

But, with the architects of their downfall in both 2014 and 2018 having been dumped out of the current competition at the group stage, perhaps the stars are aligning for Messi and the countless headlines that have already been written for just that occasion.

A side slowly growing in confidence

World Cup upsets are always a thing of beauty not least because it often coincides with the rare occasion where fair-weather fans tune in and can be swept up in the beauty of the game when a minnow knocks the sails of a much-vaunted pre-tournament favorite.

Saudi Arabia's shock come-from-behind victory against the mighty Argentines saw the many veer quickly to the conclusion that Messi and the team was doomed to another disappointment on the world's biggest stage.

But, while the Albiceleste may have required the star striker to get their campaign off the ground with his strike against Mexico in their second group match, the team look to be gradually building into a more all-rounded side.

Julian Alvarez, named South American player of the year in 2021, has grown into the tournament. After seeing just half an hour's play in both of the first two group games, the Manchester City forward repaid Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni's faith in starting him against Poland with a sensational strike.

His searing right-footed shot sealed Argentina's place in the knockout stages and although on Saturday his task was far simpler, rolling the ball into an empty net after Rodrigo De Paul has robbed Mat Ryan of the ball in his own box, it was no less important.

The 22-year-old could easily have scuffed his line, Gonzalo Higuain's glaring miss in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany is never too far from any Argentinean's thoughts, but his composure saw him score what proved to be the match-winning goal and shows the team as a whole are growing in confidence.

A creaky defence raises uncomfortable questions

During Argentina's last foray to the World Cup final in 2014, they contested the tournament with five defenders which included three players who had won their respective domestic leagues from that season.

Pablo Zabaleta and Martin Demichelis, for Manchester City in the Premier League and Ezequiel Garay, for Benfica in the Portuguese Primeria Liga, bought a wealth of experience and nous to the back line.

Lionel Messi celebrates
Lionel Messi is looking to cement his legacy as one of the greatest footballers of all time at the World CupImage: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Alongside Inter Milan's Hugo Campagnaro and Sporting's Marcos Rojo, Argentina had four shutouts in their six matches leading to the final, with the defence producing a rock-solid base for the team to build their game around.

Whether this competitions cohort of defenders can live up to the benchmark set by their predecessors eight years ago remains questionable, with Australia not testing Argentina's back line the way more elite opposition might have.

Goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez cut a relieved figured at the end of the match having been called into action late in the game, after a deflected shot from Craig Goodwin cannoned in off Enzo Fernandez to set up a frantic final 13 minutes of play.

"We ended up suffering," he said. "Digging in, winning everything in the air. Warriors are made in battle. Today we took another step forward as a team."

Edited by: James Thorogood