Al Rayyan: Lionel Messi marked his 1,000th professional game with his first goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup, leading Argentina into the quarterfinals with 2-1 win over Australia on Saturday.
With a flourish of his famous left foot in the 34th minute, Messi put Argentina ahead with his third goal at this year’s tournament and ninth in total at the World Cup — one more than Diego Maradona.
Julian Alvarez pounced on a heavy touch by Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to tap into an empty net for the second goal as Argentina set up a meeting with the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
Australia scored a 77th-minute consolation goal when Craig Goodwin’s shot deflected into the net off Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez. Amid late pressure from the Australians, there was a chance in the final seconds for Garang Kuol to send the game to extra time but his shot was smothered by Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez.
For Australia’s squad of unheralded players, it proved to be a match too far at a World Cup in which the team has exceeded expectations by reaching the knockout stage for only the second time. Australia also lost in the last 16 in 2006, to eventual champion Italy.
Maybe it’s an omen for Argentina, which has fully recovered from its shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening group match and won three straight games.
As for Messi, he now has 789 goals in a career that might yet reach a crescendo on Dec. 18 by winning the soccer’s biggest trophy in his fifth and likely last World Cup.
The dream is still alive for the seven-time world player of the year and the tens of thousands of Argentina fans who dominated the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, massively outnumbering the small pockets of green-and-gold-clad Australia supporters and making it feel like a match in Buenos Aires or Rosario.
After Messi’s goal, the Argentina fans bounced, swayed and twirled their scarves in joyous celebration of their favorite player’s latest piece of ingenuity.
He had been quiet until that point, crowded out by a compact and defensively solid Australia team. He’s never quiet for long, though.
Messi sent a pass inside to the edge of the area and kept running, eventually receiving a lay-off from Nicolas Otamendi to take one touch and stroke his finish through the long legs of Australia defender Harry Souttar — the tallest outfield player at the World Cup.
And when Alvarez added the second, it looked like Argentina was going to cruise to victory. Messi started putting on a show and one 40-meter (yard) dribble wowed the crowd as he slalomed past three defenders and was tackled just as he was about to shoot.
“MESSI! MESSI!” came the chant.
This was no walkover, though, with Australia mounting a stirring fightback in the final 20 minutes, even putting Souttar up front in stoppage time for his aerial threat.
A late bombardment of high balls nearly paid off, with two Argentina players falling on top of Martinez after his dramatic late save.