Another moment of Lionel Messi magic helped save Argentina’s Qatar 2022 World Cup hopes. La Albiceleste secured a much-needed win over Mexico.
The 2-0 victory was certainly not pretty, with Argentina struggling to create many clear-cut chances against a stubborn Mexico team that itself also offers very little threat going forward.
Messi came to the fore just after the hour mark to rescue his team, as he has done on countless occasions, finding the bottom corner of the net with a stunning strike from outside the box.
After the historic defeat by Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C match, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, Argentina needed a win against Mexico to avoid beating Poland by three or more goals, it is the last group match for to qualify. for the knockout stages.
While a win against Mexico on Saturday was crucial, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni will also have wanted to see a much-improved performance as proof that the loss to Saudi Arabia was nothing more than a blip. Not least given that before the Saudi defeat, Argentina had gone 36 matches unbeaten.
However, that achievement never materialized as Argentina looked stale and lifeless for large parts of the game.
As Mexico chased a result, space began to open up in defense with increasing regularity, and Enzo Fernandez sealed victory with a delightful stepover and finish into the top corner after El Tri had failed to clear the lines from a set piece.
Mexico started the match brightly and were the better team within the first 15 minutes, much to the delight of the huge contingent of traveling fans who serenaded their team with shouts of “olé” as the players passed around the Argentine midfield.
From the noise made during the national anthems, it was clear that Mexico’s fans outnumbered their Argentine counterparts in the stands.
The first half passed with very little incident, as neither side managed to create a single chance.
For Argentina, this was a far cry from the performance many fans in Qatar and at home had expected after their humiliating opening defeat to Saudi Arabia.
There seemed to be no cohesion and, more worryingly, no ideas on how best to string together a handful of passes and begin to break down the Mexico defense
The players seemed afraid to get on the ball and play progressively, and Messi spent much of the half walking around the pitch away from the action.
With the last attack of the first half, Argentina finally created some space on the right side of Mexico’s back line, but Marcos Acuña’s poor cross was easily cleared.
Argentina coach Scaloni had made five changes to the team that lost to Saudi Arabia in the hope of getting a reaction from his players, but he was missed after a lackluster first-half performance.
Given the perilous position Argentina found themselves in, needing a win to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, this first half will have been confusing and irritating in equal measure for fans of Let Albiceleste.
Five minutes into the second half, Messi finally came to life. The Argentina captain picked up a through ball and danced his way towards the Mexican defence, only to be hacked down by Erick Gutierrez just outside the penalty area – otherwise known as ‘Messi territory’.
However, the ensuing free-kick summed up Messi’s game so far as the Paris Saint-Germain forward fired well over the bar.
Although Argentina had been underwhelming, Mexico deserved a lot of credit for stifling the opposition’s attack and Messi in particular.
But such is the quality of Messi, even a split-second lapse of concentration can prove fatal, and the Argentine struck a decisive blow just after the hour mark.
Angel Di Maria, who had been one of Argentina’s least effective performers on the night, found Messi completely unmarked on the edge of the box.
It was the first time all night that he had been given space at all and the captain needed just one chance, controlling the ball and firing a pinpoint shot into the bottom corner.
For all of Argentina’s shortcomings, Mexico never seemed to get back into the game.
With Mexico chasing the game, Argentina started to look threatening on the break and a counter attack led to a short corner which Mexico were unable to deal with.
The ball found its way to substitute Fernandez, whose lovely step past Gutierrez gave him enough space to curl the ball past Guillermo Ochoa.
In a match sorely lacking in quality, two moments of individual brilliance were enough to kick-start Argentina’s World Cup bid in Qatar.
There is certainly still a lot to work on, but Scaloni will be relieved that his side go into the final group stage against Poland with their destiny in their own hands.