Another moment of Lionel Messi magic helped salvage Argentina’s World Cup hopes in Qatar 2022 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 tenacious Mexico side who offered very little threat even up front.
Messi came to the fore just after the hour mark to save his team as he had done countless times, hitting the bottom corner of the net with a stunning shot from outside the box.
After the historic loss to Saudi Arabia in the opening game of Group C, one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, Argentina needed a win over Mexico to avoid beating Poland by three goals or more in the final group game to qualify for the knockout phase.
Although a win against Mexico on Saturday was crucial, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni was also keen to see a vastly improved performance to prove the defeat to Saudi Arabia was just a blip. Not least because Argentina had gone 36 games unbeaten before that loss to Saudi Arabia.
However, that feat never materialized as Argentina looked stale and lifeless for most of the game.
As Mexico chased a result, spaces in their defense began to open up with increasing regularity and Enzo Fernandez secured the win with a wonderful step-over and then landed in the top corner El Tri had failed to clear his lines from a set piece.
Mexico started brilliantly and were the better side within the first 15 minutes, much to the delight of the huge fan base, who serenaded their side with shouts of ‘olé’ as the players zipped around Argentina’s midfield.
The noise during the national anthems made it clear that Mexico’s fans outnumbered their Argentinian counterparts in the stands.
The first half was uneventful as neither side was able to create a significant chance.
For Argentina, it was a far cry from the performance many fans in Qatar and at home would have expected after that humiliating opening defeat by Saudi Arabia.
There seemed to be no cohesion and, more worryingly, no ideas on how best to string together a handful of passes and start breaking the Mexican defense
The players seemed afraid to get on the ball and play progressively, with Messi spending much of the half sauntering around the pitch away from the action.
Argentina’s final attack of the first half finally created some space on the right side of Mexico’s back line, but a poor cross from Marcos Acuña was easily cleared.
Argentina coach Scaloni had made five changes to the side lost to Saudi Arabia hoping to get a reaction from his players, but he faltered after a bland first-half performance.
Given the dangerous position Argentina found themselves in, needing a win to have any realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout rounds, that first-half performance was both puzzling and galling for fans la Albiceleste.
Five minutes into the second half, Messi finally came to life. The Argentina captain caught a through ball and danced towards the Mexican defense only to be slammed down by Erick Gutierrez just outside the box – also known as ‘Messi territory’.
The ensuing free-kick, however, summed up Messi’s game so much as the Paris Saint-Germain striker fired his shot well over the bar.
Although Argentina were unconvincing, Mexico deserved a lot of credit for smothering their opponent’s attack and Messi in particular.
But such is the quality of Messi, even a split-second loss of focus can prove fatal and the Argentine delivered a decisive blow just after the hour mark.
Angel Di Maria, who had been one of Argentina’s least effective players that night, found Messi completely unmarked on the edge of the box.
It was the first time he had found space that night and the captain needed just one chance, controlling the ball and firing a spot-on shot into the bottom corner.
Despite Argentina’s deficits, it never seemed likely that Mexico would return to the game.
With Mexico chasing the game, Argentina started to look menacing at the break and a counterattack resulted in a short corner that Mexico couldn’t handle.
The ball found its way to substitute Fernandez, whose beautiful pass to Gutierrez gave him enough space to roll the ball past Guillermo Ochoa.
In a match sorely lacking in quality, two moments of individual brilliance were enough to kick-start Argentina’s World Cup bid in Qatar.
There is certainly still work to be done, but Scaloni will be relieved that his side will face Poland in the final group game with their fate in their own hands.