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Argentina beat Poland 2-0 to set up last 16 clash with Australia

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi reacts after his team won the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 in Doha (AFP)Premium
Argentina's forward Lionel Messi reacts after his team won the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Poland and Argentina at Stadium 974 in Doha (AFP)

  • Argentina vs Poland: Midfielder Alexis MacAllister put Argentina ahead straight after the break with a low first-time shot after a flowing passing move, while Julian Alvarez shot past Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the 67th minute to make it 2-0

DOHA : Lionel Messi's Argentina beat Poland 2-0 in their final World Cup Group C match at Stadium 974 in Doha on Wednesday to advance to the knockout stage where they will face Australia.

After opening the World Cup with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, Argentina wound up finishing in first place in Group C and will next play Australia — a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage.

Midfielder Alexis MacAllister put Argentina ahead straight after the break with a low first-time shot after a flowing passing move, while Julian Alvarez shot past Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the 67th minute to make it 2-0.

In the first half, Szczesny was Poland's hero as he made a diving stretch save to deny Messi a penalty, awarded after his outstretched hand made contact with the Argentine striker's face.

For the players, Argentina's ability to bounce back from that adversity showed their mettle.

They even overcame captain and talisman Lionel Messi missing a first half penalty with the score at 0-0.

"We showed we have a lot of character and personality. We deserve respect for finishing first in the group and the way we played," said midfielder Rodrigo De Paul.

Centre-back Nicolas Otamendi added: "We're a team that gets stronger under pressure, we keeping demonstrating it."

Midfielder Alexis Mac Allister, who opened the scoring less than a minute into the second half, said it was a "dream come true" to bag a goal at the World Cup.

And he insisted the team never stopped believing, even after Messi's miss.

"We were always positive, we had the composure we needed to win this match -- the missed penalty didn't get us down," he said.

Messi ended up relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after he was hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick in the 39th minute.

“I’m upset that I missed the penalty, but the team came back stronger after my error," he said.

A largely pro-Argentina crowd, waving flags and scarfs and beating drums behind both goals, had been sweeping Messi and his team along at the 44,000-seat Stadium 974 and they didn't stop after the penalty. Within seconds, a chant of “MESSI! MESSI!" immediately reverberated around the venue in a bid to keep their idol’s head high.

And the roars were even louder at the start of the second half, first after Mac Allister’s goal — a scruffy finish from Nahuel Molina's cut-back from the right — in the first minute and soon after as news filtered through that Mexico had taken the lead against Saudi Arabia, which started the day in third place.

Playing an Argentine-record 22nd World Cup game, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace all game to Poland with his dribbling ability and vision. One 40-meter solo run saw him weave past three opponents, drift past another only to miskick as he took aim.

The match was billed as a head-to-head between Messi and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, perhaps the best center forward in the world, but it proved to be a mismatch.

“If Messi played with us and Robert played for Argentina, Robert would have scored five goals," Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said. “Robert needs to be helped and the match was only played in our half."

Messi wasn't involved in either goal, though. For the second, Enzo Fernandez scooped a pass to Alvarez — starting ahead of regular striker Lautaro Martinez — and he took one touch before curling his shot into the top corner in the 67th minute.

Things couldn't have gone better for Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who made more bold changes in bringing in Alvarez, Fernandez and Molina and seeing them play a part in the goals. Mac Allister, meanwhile, didn't start against Saudi Arabia and has added energy in midfield in the two games since.

Suddenly, Argentina looks more like the team which entered the World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten run and as one of the tournament favorites, a year after winning the Copa America.

“We wanted to make amends for that Saudi Arabia game because we knew we could play better," Mac Allister said. “We've managed to find that calm we needed ... we played well collectively and it fills us with confidence."

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