Argentina’s World Cup chart continues on an upward curve as Lionel Messi’s involvement in Qatar continues into the last 16 – but the story of a routine win barely touches the sides of the drama that is brewing took place at stadium 974.
They now face Australia, while the Poles join them in the Round of 16 on goal difference.
It was the night the real Argentina rose, the fluid, competitive force that went 36 games unbeaten before the rug was pulled from them by Saudi Arabia, playing full throttle to outclass Poland.
More of that later – because the knockout stages here contained tension and drama that the match itself never gave us because Argentina were so superior.
Argentina led 2-0 and Poland went through on the shaky basis that they had fewer yellow cards than Mexico, five to seven, but knowing another goal conceded, or another for the Mexicans at the Lusail stadium , would send them.
In the end, Saudi Arabia put Poland’s qualification beyond doubt with a goal of their own, the catalyst for wild Polish celebrations on the pitch and in the stands. with waving red and white flags, as news filtered in, they would play against France.
In the background, Argentina were cheered on by their magnificent fans, who flooded the 974 stadium by the thousands and made it look more like the River Plate stadium rather than this unique arena made of shipping containers.
Argentina were in everyone’s conversation when potential World Cup winners were discussed but slipped badly against Saudi Arabia and then needed a moment of Messi magic to get them going when they won 2-0 against Mexico.
Here they played at a higher pace and intensity, with Messi dazzling with those mazy dribbles, even hearing his name chanted when he had a first-half penalty brilliantly saved by Wojciech Szczesny.
In reality, justice was served as it was an abysmal reward after VAR, the result of a routine aerial challenge between Messi and Szczesny.
It was Messi’s 22nd appearance at the World Cup, overtaking the great Diego Maradona with the cleanest appearance for Argentina at this tournament.
Messi couldn’t celebrate the landmark with a goal but it would have left a bitter taste if he did with that penalty given the highly dubious nature of the award, while VAR should have confirmed he was not a penalty rather than pointing Dutch referee Danny Makkelie. at the location.
The only surprise was that the breakthrough took 46 minutes before Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister broke the deadlock, with Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez completing the formalities with a fine second.
Argentina’s passing game was consummate, the kind Messi appreciates, as they completed 800 in total and had a completion rate of 92%, both the highest ever in a Cup game the world since 1966.
They combined the more subtle aspects of the game with a fierce competitive edge, tearing up hit tackles, harassing Poland until they spit possession, with every player willing to do the defensive dirty work to regain possession.
In other words, it was the night the real Argentina stood up in this World Cup.
Argentina have now joined Brazil, England, France and Spain to show what they are capable of producing and the strength of this victory, and the determination to get it from the first whistle, will have delighted coach Lionel Scaloni.
It looked like the team they were talking about before the showpiece started in Qatar, with the mercurial Messi leading the younger generation.
This was illustrated by the clever skill produced by Benfica’s 21-year-old Enzo Fernadez to set up Alvarez, just 22, to fire a finish past Szczesny into the top corner to show why he is so valued by Manchester City. coach Pep Guardiola.
Thousands of Argentine fans claimed territory behind every goal at Stadium 974 after the final whistle and deafeningly went through their full songbook to celebrate what they had just seen and what they could still see from their team in Qatar.
The colors of their country swirled above their heads in the form of shirts and scarves in a joyful outpouring.
Belief is growing among Argentina’s players and fans that they could still fulfill all those rosy pre-World Cup predictions – and Messi could yet get his hands on the crown that has so far eluded him.