Argentina 2-1 Australia: Magic Messi guides Albiceleste past Socceroos
Lionel Messi marked his 1,000th career appearance with his first ever goal in the World Cup knockout stage as Argentina reached the quarter-finals with a 2-1 win over Australia on Saturday.
Australia were content to frustrate their opponents at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, but Messi carved the Socceroos open in trademark fashion as half-time approached – picking out the bottom-left corner to net.
If Argentina's first goal was sublime, their second bordered on the ridiculous as Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan gifted possession to Julian Alvarez, who made no mistake to seal the win.
Australia halved the arrears when Craig Goodwin's effort deflected off Enzo Fernandez and beyond Emiliano Martinez, but Argentina never looked likely to be pegged back as they teed up a quarter-final clash with the Netherlands.
Argentina struggled to make any early headway as Graham Arnold's men defended resolutely, but La Albiceleste had their seven-time Ballon d'Or winner to thank when they took the lead with their first real attack.
With 35 minutes gone, Messi darted inside from the right wing to latch onto Nicolas Otamendi's lay-off before planting a neat side-footed finish beyond the despairing dive of Ryan.
Messi saw an effort deflect into Ryan's arms as Argentina chased a second after the restart, but the goalkeeper was at fault as Argentina doubled their lead with 57 minutes gone.
Ryan inexplicably tried to dribble his way out of trouble when pressed by Rodrigo De Paul and Alvarez, and the Manchester City striker applied the simplest of finishes after stealing possession.
Australia reduced the deficit out of nowhere when Fernandez inadvertently diverted Goodwin's long-range strike into the bottom-right corner, before Lisandro Martinez denied Aziz Behich a remarkable leveller with a fine last-ditch tackle.
Substitute Lautaro Martinez went close on three occasions before Emiliano Martinez denied Garang Kuol from point-blank range at the last, but Argentina clung on to seal their progress.
What does it mean? Messi ends knockout hoodoo as Albiceleste advance
This year's tournament represents Messi's fifth World Cup, but before Saturday, all eight of his goals at the competition had come in the group stages.
As their underwhelming first-half performance demonstrated, Argentina will need Messi to step up in the big moments if they are to deliver the trophy that has so far eluded him.
The diminutive attacker did so in trademark fashion here, producing a typically cultured finish from an inside-right position to score his ninth World Cup goal – but his first in a knockout match.
Messi surpasses Maradona, chases Batistuta
On the day Messi brought up 1,000 career appearances – 169 of them for Argentina, he also inched closer to making another piece of history for his country.
Messi's opener saw him surpass Diego Maradona and Guillermo Stabile's tallies of eight World Cup goals. Only Gabriel Batistuta (10) has now outscored Messi when representing the country at the tournament.
Alvarez impresses once more
While Messi stole the headlines on Saturday, his 22-year-old strike partner also demonstrated his worth with another energetic performance.
Alvarez's goal may have owed much to the poor decision-making of Ryan, but it made the City striker just the sixth Argentina player to score on each of his first two World Cup starts, and the first since Hernan Crespo did so in 2006.
Key Opta facts
- Argentina have progressed from five of their last six round of 16 matches at the World Cup, the only exception during this run coming in 2018 against France.
- The last 16 remains the furthest stage Australia have ever reached at the World Cup, also eliminated at this point of the competition in 2006 against Italy.
- Fernandez's own goal was only the second by an Argentina player at the World Cup, after Roberto Perfumo's against Italy in 1974.
- Messi made his 1,000th career appearance in this match for Argentina (169), Barcelona (778) and Paris Saint-Germain (53); to date he has 789 goals and 338 assists. Australia were the 129th team he has scored against in his career.
Argentina's victory tees them up for a quarter-final clash with the Netherlands – who they beat in the 1978 World Cup final and in the 2014 semi-finals – on Friday. Australia's campaign, meanwhile, is over.