Yet another moment of Lionel Messi magic helped salvage Argentina’s World Cup hopes at Qatar 2022 as La Albiceleste secured a much-needed victory over Mexico.
The 2-0 win certainly wasn’t pretty, with Argentina struggling to create many clear-cut chances against a stubborn Mexico team that itself also offered very little threat going forward.
Messi came to the fore just after the hour mark to save his team, as he has done on countless occasions, finding the bottom corner of the net with a stunning strike from outside of the box.
After the historic defeat to Saudi Arabia in its opening Group C match, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, Argentina needed a win against Mexico to avoid having to beat Poland by three or more goals in its final group match in order to qualify for the knockout stages.
Though 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 that Saudi defeat Argentina had gone 36 games unbeaten.
However, that performance never materialized with Argentina looking stale and lifeless for much of the game.
As Mexico chased a result, spaces began to open up in its defense with increasing regularity and Enzo Fernandez secured the win with a wonderful stepover and finish into the top corner after El Tri had failed to clear its lines from a set piece.
Mexico started the game brightly and was the better team inside the opening 15 minutes, much to the delight of the huge contingent of traveling fans that serenaded their team with shouts of “olé” as the players passed their way 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 by with very little incident, as neither side was able to create a single chance of note.
For Argentina, this was a long way from the performance that many fans in Qatar and back home would have expected following that humiliating opening defeat to Saudi Arabia.
There seemed to be no cohesion and, more worryingly, no ideas about how best to string a handful of passes together and begin to break down the Mexico defense
Players seemed fearful of getting on the ball and playing progressively, with Messi spending much of the half ambling around the pitch away from the action.
With the last attack of the first half, Argentina did finally create some space down the right hand side of Mexico’s back line, but Marcos Acuña’s poor cross was easily cleared away.
Argentina coach Scaloni had made five changes to the team that lost to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of receiving a reaction from his players, but he was left wanting after an insipid first-half performance.
Given the hazardous position Argentina found itself in, needing a win to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, that first half display will have been puzzling and infuriating in equal measure to fans of La Albiceleste.
Five minutes into the second half, Messi finally sprang to life. The Argentina captain picked up a through ball and danced his way towards the Mexican defense, only to be hacked down by Erick Gutierrez right outside the penalty area – otherwise known as “Messi territory.”
The subsequent free-kick, however, summed up Messi’s game so far as the Paris Saint-Germain forward fired his effort well over the crossbar.
Though Argentina had been underwhelming, Mexico deserved plenty of credit for stifling its opponent’s attack and Messi in particular.
But such is the Messi quality, even a split-second loss of concentration can prove fatal and the Argentine struck a crucial 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 penalty area.
It was the first time all evening he had found himself with any space at all and the captain needed only one chance, controlling the ball and firing a pinpoint shot into the bottom corner.
For all of Argentina’s deficiencies, Mexico never looked likely to get back into the match.
With Mexico chasing the game, Argentina began to look threatening on the break and one counterattack led to a short corner that Mexico failed to deal with.
The ball found its way to substitute Fernandez, whose lovely stepover past Gutierrez allowed him enough space to curl the ball past Guillermo Ochoa.
In a match that was sorely lacking in quality, two moments of individual brilliance were enough to kickstart Argentina’s World Cup bid in Qatar.
There is certainly still much to work on, but Scaloni will be relieved his side goes into the final group game against Poland with its fate in its own hands.