Messi’s magic takes Argentina to the quarterfinals of the World Cup

Lionel Messi produced a moment of trademark quality to score the opening goal in a 2-1 win over Australia and send Argentina to the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday.

Messi’s 789th goal in the 1,000th appearance of his career, but his first in the knockout rounds of the World Cup, helped set up a round of 16 clash with the unbeaten Netherlands on Friday.

Julián Álvarez netted the other on 57 minutes after a calamitous Australian defence, before Enzo Fernández’s own goal on 77 minutes set up an unexpectedly nervous finish.

Now 35, one of the greatest players of all time is looking to win the tournament for the first time in what will surely be his last World Cup.

Messi’s graceful first-half goal, doubling the ball into the bottom corner, broke the resistance and ultimately the hearts of a brave Australian side who defied all expectations in Qatar and went down fighting.

The Australian fans in the yellow jerseys were vastly outnumbered in the crowd at the 45,000 capacity Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and were drowned out by the boisterous, bellowing and jumping of Argentine supporters.

Back in Australia, where fans had a sunrise start if they wanted to watch the game live on television, the Sydney Opera House was lit up in green and gold.

His team was a big loser, few at home expected them to go this far in the tournament, but this has been a World Cup of surprises.

Two-time champions Argentina were the victim of what is arguably the biggest shock in Qatar when they lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in their opener.

But here it would not be repeated.

Graham Arnold’s Socceroos set out to unsettle their opponents. Keanu Baccus left one on Messi and Jackson Irvine was booked for crushing left-back Marcos Acuna.

Argentina had Australia pinned down, but the Socceroos were determined and gaining confidence as an uninspiring first half progressed.

Messi was getting frustrated, fighting with Australian defender Aziz Behich on the sidelines.

Argentina and their coach Lionel Scaloni urgently needed something special and in Messi they got it 10 minutes from the break.

Alexis Mac Allister fed defender Nicolás Otamendi, who was still in the box for an Argentina free kick, and mishandled it into the path of Messi, who deflected the ball with his left foot across the ground into the corner.

It was Argentina’s first shot on goal.

– Ryan makes a mistake –

Australia had only gone this far once before, in 2006, and needed to come out and attack in the second half.

Instead, they self-destructed. Goalkeeper and captain Mathew Ryan tried to play under fierce pressure in his box from running back Rodrigo De Paul just before the hour mark and was stripped by Álvarez.

The 22-year-old Manchester City striker stepped in, stole the ball from Ryan and spun to slot into an empty net for his second goal in as many games. Arnold hit his dugout in frustration.

The Socceroos looked dead and gone, but substitute Goodwin latched on to a loose clearance and his shot hit Fernández and bounced off with 13 minutes remaining.

Behich then made a superb, twisting run from left-back, past three Argentinian players before Lisandro Martínez made one last vital challenge.

Teenager Garang Kuol then forced Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into a desperate save in stoppage time before the massive ranks of South American fans celebrated a grand victory.


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