Yet another moment of Lionel Messi magic helped save Argentina’s 2022 World Cup hopes in Qatar La Albiceleste secured a much-needed victory over Mexico.
The 2-0 win certainly wasn’t pretty as Argentina struggled to create many clear chances against a stubborn team from Mexico who themselves presented little threat going forward.
Messi came forward just after the hour mark to save his team, as he has done countless times, finding the bottom corner of the net with a stunning strike from outside the box.
After the historic defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opening match of Group C, 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 to qualify. for the knockout stage.
While a victory 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 considering that Argentina was unbeaten for 36 games before that Saudi defeat.
However, that performance never materialized as Argentina looked 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 victory with a stunning stepover to finish in the top corner after El Tri had failed to clear his lines from a set piece.
Mexico started the match in high spirits and were the better team in 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 made their way across the Argentine midfield.
From the noise made during the national anthems, it was clear that the Mexican fans outnumbered their Argentine counterparts in the stands.
The first half passed with very few incidents as neither side managed to create a single meaningful chance.
For Argentina, this was a far cry from the performance many fans in Qatar and at home had expected after that 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 Mexico’s defense began to break down.
Players seemed anxious to get the ball and play progressively, with Messi spending much of the half sauntering around the pitch away from the action.
With the last attack of the first half, Argentina finally created some space down 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 losing to Saudi Arabia in hopes of getting a reaction from his players, but was left behind after a tasteless first-half performance.
Given the perilous position Argentina found itself in, needing a win to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout stages, that first-half appearance will have been as confusing as it is irritating to fans of La albiceleste.
Five minutes into the second half, Messi finally came alive. The Argentina captain picked up a through ball and danced his way into the Mexican defence, only to be knocked down just outside the penalty area by Erick Gutierrez – otherwise known as ‘Messi territory’.
However, the ensuing free-kick summed up Messi’s play so well that the Paris Saint-Germain forward’s effort shot well over the crossbar.
While Argentina had been disappointing, Mexico deserved much credit for suppressing its opponent’s attack and Messi in particular.
But that’s Messi quality, even a fraction of a second’s loss of concentration can be fatal and the Argentine struck a crucial blow just after the hour mark.
Angel Di Maria, one of Argentina’s least effective players on the night, found Messi completely unmarked on the edge of the box.
It was the first time all evening that he had any space and the captain only needed one chance: he controlled the ball and fired a precise shot into the bottom corner.
For all Argentina’s shortcomings, it never looked like Mexico would get back into the game.
With Mexico chasing the game, Argentina started to look menacing at the break and a counter-attack led to a short corner that Mexico failed to field.
The ball found its way to substitute Fernandez, whose fine pass past Gutierrez gave him enough room to curl the ball past Guillermo Ochoa.
In a match that lacked quality, two moments of individual brilliance were enough to kick-start Argentina’s World Cup contender in Qatar.
There is certainly still a lot to work on, but Scaloni will be relieved to see his side go into their final group game against Poland with fate in their own hands.