Cheer up, Leo, the kids are alright! Winners, losers & ratings as Argentina reach last 16 despite Messi's penalty miss
Lionel Messi is a lucky boy. For a long, long time in Doha, it appeared as if Argentina were going to pay for their captain's latest penalty miss with a place in the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup.
However, this time, Messi was bailed out by two unlikely heroes, with Alexis Mac Allister making the crucial breakthrough against Poland before Julian Alvarez sealed a 2-0 victory that sees the Albiceleste progress to the knockout stages as winners of Group C.
Lionel Scaloni's side will now face Australia in Al Rayyan on Saturday and, having recovered from the shock of losing to Saudi Arabia in their tournament-opener with back-to-back wins, Argentina are once again looking like serious World Cup contenders.
GOAL runs through all of the winners and losers from a raucous Stadium 974...
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Alexis Mac Allister:
Seriously, what a time to score your first international goal! Argentina had battered Poland during the first half. The xG was 1.98 to 0.23 in their favour. But they just could not find a way through. Hell, even Messi had messed up. Step forward Alexis Mac Allister, a man making just his 10th appearance for his country, to score the goal that was probably nearly celebrated as wildly in Brighton as Buenos Aires.
A second successive spot-kick save for the Poland goalkeeper, and what a beauty it was! Could Messi have better placed his penalty? Undoubtedly. But it was seriously well struck and it took an incredibly strong hand from Szczesny to parry it away to safety. Of course, while he may have won his personal duel with Messi, he still ended up on the losing side. Szczesny, though, was arguably the only Polish player who can be proud of his performance.
It wasn't so long ago that a starstruck Alvarez was getting photos with Messi. And yet here he was, playing on the game's grandest stage with his idol, and upstaging him too. It was a hell of a step up in class for Erling Haaland's understudy at Manchester City, but he proved himself an excellent young striker in his own right. There was plenty of pressure on Alvarez's shoulders after being asked to take over from Inter ace Lautaro Martinez up front, but the 22-year-old made light of it, sealing victory with a stunning strike into the top corner. A star has well and truly been born.
It's only the host nation that's supposed to have home advantage at a tournament. However, Argentina's supporters ripped up the playbook here at Stadium 974. They turned this into a Qatari version of the Bombonera, and make no mistake about it, they played a pivotal role in this victory. They weren't even deflated by the penalty miss, with chants of 'Messi! Messi! Messi!' immediately ringing around the arena. With this kind of support at every ground they grace, anything is possible for Argentina in Qatar.
Another game, another VARce. Never in a million years should Danny Makkelie have been asked to take another look at Szczesny accidentally making slight contact with Messi's face with a flailing hand. Even then, there was an expectancy among the few neutrals in this arena that common sense would prevail and the referee would allow play to continue. Sadly, Makkelie decided otherwise. Incredibly, it needs saying once again: not all contact equates to a foul. Unfortunately, this probably won't be the last time at this tournament that we're left wondering what on earth is going on in the VAR room.
Lionel Messi's penalty record:
Messi is not perfect. His penalty record proves it. With his miss here, he has equalled an unwanted record. Since records began in 1966, only Asamoah Gyan has squandered two spot-kicks at a World Cup. He may have made amends for his 2018 miss against Iceland by converting his penalty against Saudi Arabia on matchday one, but will he get another chance to make up for his latest failure from 12 yards? Maybe, actually, if the officials keep giving him penalties for nothing!
Any football fan has to feel a huge degree of sympathy for Lewandowski. We're talking about one of the game's all-time great strikers, so for him to have to spearhead such a painfully pragmatic Poland side just feels wrong. He deserves better than this. Even after they had fallen behind, and with Mexico leading, Czeslaw Michniewicz still didn't instruct his players to push forward. They were happy to try sneak through with a defeat, and it paid off. Just. But it's difficult to make a case for them deserving to go through, given they made no use of a supreme striker for the duration of the game. Sadly, Lewandowski is likely in for another long night against France this weekend...
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Argentina Ratings: Defence
Emiliano Martinez (6/10):
Shaky under pass-back pressure in the opening minutes but had nothing to do thereafter.
Nahuel Molina (7/10):
Recalled in place of Gonzalo Montiel and was always willing to get forward in support of Angel Di Maria. Teed up Mac Allister for the opening goal.
Cristian Romero (6/10):
Struggled at times with the strength of Lewandowski but this was a much better display after his horror show against Saudi Arabia.
Nicolas Otamendi (8/10):
Argentina's best defender at this tournament by some distance. Introduced himself to Lewandowski with one tremendously-timed tackle inside the opening 15 minutes and followed that up with a bone-crunching challenge on Przemyslaw Frankowski. Immense.
Marcos Acuna (7/10):
Always made himself available on the left wing and was repeatedly picked out by Messi. His touch and final ball let him down a few times, though.
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Rodrigo De Paul (6/10):
One can't fault his energy and endeavour but he's still not at his best. Misplaced several passes and did some silly things at times.
Enzo Fernandez (8/10):
Rewarded with a start after his stunner against Mexico and once again made an impact, with his scooped pass setting up Alvarez for Argentina's second goal.
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Angel Di Maria (7/10):
A constant menace while on the field, popping up on either flank to torment the Polish full-backs. Also nearly scored from a corner, and looked like he meant to have a go too.
Lionel Messi (7/10):
Despite his penalty miss, the No.10 actually performed well, threatening to score throughout with his surging runs forward. As always, he was central to every attack, finding Acuna on the left flank at will. This was just one of those rare occasions when the ball refused to bend to his will. Still, he's now the oldest player on record to both create five chances and make at least five dribbles in the same World Cup game. The previous titleholder? Diego Maradona, of course.
Alexis Mac Allister (8/10):
Argentina's saviour. The Brighton man made the crucial breakthrough by converting Molina's cut-back, and nearly added a second too.
Julian Alvarez (8/10):
Fully justified his inclusion with a fine all-round display capped by a cracking finish for the killer second goal. The only slightly bad thing you can say is that he maybe should have struck again in the final quarter of the game.
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Subs & Manager
Lautaro Martinez (4/10):
Had a glorious chance after taking over up front from Alvarez but fired badly wide. Fair to say he's lost his starting spot.
Nicolas Tagliafico (6/10):
Came on for Acuna just before the hour mark and had little to do.
Leandro Paredes (6/10):
Replaced Di Maria as Scaloni looked to shore up his midfield after breaking the deadlock.
Thiago Almada (N/A):
Only saw a few minutes of action as a replacement for Mac Allister.
German Pezzella (N/A):
Introduced with 12 minutes to go for Fernandez.
Lionel Scaloni (7/10):
Got most of his big decisions right, with the recalled Molina even popping up with an assist for Mac Allister's breakthrough and Alvarez scoring the second. Maybe he might consider taking his captain off penalty duty, though...