AArgentina has Lionel Messi, of course. The football world star is now 35 years old. On Saturday in ar-Rayyan, west of Doha, he played his 1000th game as a professional in the round of 16 of the World Cup against Australia. And he was, once again, the decisive man. In an uneventful first half, a stroke of genius from Messi was enough to put his side on the right path.
But Argentina now also has an Alexis Mac Allister, 23, a Julián Álvarez, 22, or an Enzo Fernández, 21. Álvarez made it 2-0 after the break. The fact that Australia still managed to make it 2-1 thanks to a deflected long-range shot by Craig Goodwin did not change the fact that the South Americans will meet the Netherlands in the quarter-finals next Friday (20:00 CET in the FAZ live ticker for the World Cup) :1 prevailed against the USA.
This new generation of the Albiceleste will also be needed if Messi is to achieve his dream of the title at his last World Cup. Especially since Ángel Di María, the other big older name, had to watch with a thigh injury on Saturday.
The first half of the game was weird. The Argentines missed a lot that a team hoping to play for the title in Qatar should have. Speed above all, the absence of Di Mariá hurt particularly here. But also ideas, here Messi could not help at first. The Australians, without the class of the Argentines in terms of football, relied on their style. They faced the supposedly overpowering opponent as a team. That worked. After a good half hour, however, they made a mistake that was not immediately apparent, but which turned out to be fatal a little later.
Because the many Argentinian fans in the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, who had been singing their repertoire at the loudest long before the game, had become surprisingly calm because of the inhibited performance of their players. Then Aziz Behich took on Messi on the sidelines. In one of his rare attempts to participate in winning the ball, the Australian ran wide with the ball, tearing Messi’s jersey in the process. He didn’t find that funny at all and pushed Behich.
The Argentinian fans awakened by this action were beside themselves and suddenly in the mood. Less than a minute later the ball was in the goal (35th minute). Messi got it back from a free kick, passing it to Mac Allister who rebounded to Nicolás Otamendi who rebounded to Messi. He, in turn, pushed his left flat into the left corner. It was one of those typical Messi goals that he scored so many times at FC Barcelona. The ecstasy was great – and the lengthy phases of the game were forgotten. It was, unbelievably, Messi’s first goal at a World Cup that didn’t come in the group stage.
After the break, the game had a lot more verve. Then the Australians helped the opponent on the jumps again. Not with a fight, but with too great a risk. After a back pass, Mathew Ryan came under pressure. He was able to dodge Rodrigo de Paul, but not the advancing Álvarez. He tipped the ball off the goalkeeper’s foot and put it in (57′). After that, the big stage again belonged to the old master Messi, who impressed with a dribble through the opposing defense but was stopped, and the Argentine fans, who sang loudly again. Even Di María, who was watching on the bench, rocked to the beat.
But the Australians didn’t give up and were rewarded. When Goodwin simply fired from the distance, his ball hit Fernández – and from there flew past the bewildered goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into the goal (77th). Suddenly the men from “down under” were back on top and trying everything. Apparently, Behich learned how to dribble half an opponent’s team from Messi and tried it once. With success. Nearly.
Substitute Lisandro Martínez just threw himself into the path of the shot with a tackle (81′). The chance was just as great in the last scene before the final whistle, when Garang Kuol fired from the turn, but goalkeeper Martínez made a splendid save with his outstretched arm. He then buried the ball under himself while two teammates threw themselves on him in relief. The rest was a sky blue and white party in front of the fan block. “We could have scored one more goal – just to be on the safe side. But we did it, that’s the main thing,” said Messi and warned: “We have to keep standing together, it won’t get any easier now.”
The Australian footballers, at best fourth fiddle at home behind cricket, Australian football and rugby, fought passionately but missed out on making it into the top eight teams for the first time. The second World Cup round of 16 after 2006 is still a success for the “Socceroos”. “We can be proud. I hope we made people happy,” said Jackson Irvine from second division club FC St. Pauli.
The Argentine born in 2022, as the four World Cup games have shown, is Messi and more. The star scored in the surprise opening defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia and in the crucial win over Mexico in the second game. But he also missed a penalty against Poland in the final match of the preliminary round. Fernández followed up with a dream goal against Mexico, while Mac Allister and Álvarez, who now also beat Australia in the round of 16, settled the situation against Poland. It’s a promising mix that the Argentines have in this campaign.