Lionel Messi’s sporting legacy did not hinge on the result of Wednesday’s World Cup match between Argentina and Poland.
But his dreams of winning a World Cup, and achieving what he himself called the “impossible dream,” hung in the balance.
Argentina took the field at Stadium 974 in Doha for their final match of group play needing a win, or a draw and some help, to advance to the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup. With everything to play for, and in front of a crowd that provided the feel of a home match for Argentina, Messi and company finally broke through in the second half, punching their ticket to the round of 16 with an impressive 2-0 victory over Poland.
As the match wound down, the focus shifted from whether Messi and Argentina would advance, to whether Poland themselves – who entered the final day of group play atop the group – would survive.
Messi himself had an early chance in the 11th minute from a tough angle, but his shot was deflected behind goal by Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny for a corner. Poland would eventually clear, keeping the match level.
Argentina would have another tremendous chance in the 28th minute:
Szczensy managed to block a shot off the right foot of Julian Alvarez, but the rebound settled at the feet of Marcos Acuna, whose own attempt went just.
They kept the pressure on, and in the 33rd minute Angel Di Maria curled in a beautiful ball on a corner, forcing Szczensy to react and punch the ball over:
As you can see, even Szczensy appreciated Di Maria’s attempt at the Olimpico.
The Polish keeper would not appreciate what happened moments later. On a ball into the box, Szczensy came off the line to try and punch the ball away before Messi could get to it, and made contact with Messi’s face. After a review, Argentina was awarded a penalty.
And with the eyes of the world on him, along with the hopes of the nation, Messi stepped to the spot.
Only to be denied:
Here is another look at the effort from the Polish keeper, who read it right and then used his massive frame to deny Messi:
But Argentina kept the pressure on, keeping Poland on their heels and forcing Szczensy to make save after save. And by the time the whistle blew for halftime, Argentina had 14 shots to their credit, and Szczensy had made nine saves, including the penalty kick.
Yet the match was scoreless.
The story of the second half would be whether the one-way traffic of the match would finally result in a goal from Argentina, or if Szczensy and Poland could withstand the pressure, and perhaps counter with a goal of their own.
We got the mere seconds into the second half:
Argentina finally broke through off the first touch from Alexis Mac Allister, after the cross played back into the box from Nahuel Molina.
It was Mac Allister’s first goal for Argentina in international play.
The goal also put some pressure on Poland, and their own chances for advancing into the round of 16. Poland could advance even with a loss, but suddenly the result between Mexico and Saudi Arabia came into focus. Mexico scored twice early in the second half, pulling them level in the group with Poland on four points each.
Meaning the margin in both games could be decisive, with goal differential between Poland and Mexico the first tiebreaker, and goals scored the second.
So when Alvarez scored in the 68th minute, it was time to panic on the Polish bench. The goal from Alvarez meant that Poland and Mexico were level not just on goal differential, but also goals scored.
Which would bring the next tiebreaker into play, the FIFA “fair play points” calculus, into view. Poland, having been shown just four yellow cards during group play, held that advantage over Mexico, who had seen seven.
But another goal from either Mexico, or Argentina, would change that. As would a red card for either Mexico or Poland. Those also seemed like the only likely options, as Poland lacked any attacking capabilities throughout the match with Argentina. Messi and company continued to dominate possession and the flow of play, and even quick chances at counters failed to materialize for Poland.
In the 78th minute, Grzegorz Krychowiak received a yellow card for Poland, bringing that potential tiebreaker even closer, and reducing Poland’s margins for error that much more.
As the match moved into the 81st minute, Argentina seemed to dial back the pressure a bit, and settled for controlling the ball and the pace, rather than pushing forward as they had been for the first 80 minutes of play.
Argentina did have a fantastic chance at another goal in the 86th minute, when Poland gave the ball away in their own end. Lautaro Martínez won the race to the ball and put another shot towards goal for Argentina, but the ball rolled wide of the goal, keeping Poland alive:
Six minutes of stoppage time were added, meaning that Poland needed to hang on for a little longer, while hoping things remained as they were between Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Argentina had two incredible chances during stoppage time, the first of which required a header off the line to keep Poland alive:
Finally the final whistle blew, and it was time for Poland to sit and watch the match between Mexico and Saudi Arabia, and hope for good news.
Poland got that good news, as Saudi Arabia scored in stoppage time, giving Poland the edge on goal differential over Mexico.
You could almost hear the sighs of relief form the Polish bench, over the still-present roar of Argentina’s fans.
While the chaotic finish to both matches might be the story of the day, the bigger picture is Messi, and his dreams of a World Cup remaining intact after a difficult start in the loss to Saudi Arabia. With the victory from Argentina – and the win for Mexico – Argentina advances as the winners of the group, avoiding a meeting with France in the round of 16.
And Messi’s visions of an impossible dream survive for a few more nights, at least.