Argentina and Messi begin to flex muscles for World Cup playoffs

Argentina and Messi begin to flex muscles for World Cup playoffs

After a stuttering start, South American champions Argentina are starting to find form at the World Cup. Their timing is perfect as they head into the knockout stages.

When they needed it most, Argentina found their best performance of the World Cup so far as they defeated Poland 2-0 in their final pool match, a result that sealed them top spot in Group C and a last-16 meeting with Australia.

It has already been a roller-coaster ride in Qatar for the South Americans, who came into the tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run under coach Lionel Scaloni, but looked rusty in their stunning opening 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia.

It immediately put them on the back foot in the pool, but they did enough to see off Mexico 2-0 in another unconvincing display in their second match, before a much-improved showing against the Polish at Stadium 974, where they were roared on by the vast majority of the 44,089 crowd.

“We wanted to compensate for the defeat (against Saudi Arabia). Today it was a great game, we played very well collectively,” Argentina goal-scorer Alexis Mac Allister said, adding the team did not let their heads drop after Lionel Messi missed a first-half penalty.

“We tried to stay positive, to stay calm. We did not feel down. We tried to be optimistic and go for the match. Fortunately, we managed to win and go through.”

There was more zip, better combination play and an altogether more polished Argentina on Wednesday, when they had 24 shots at goal, which suggests a theory put forward by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez last week may well be true.

Martinez said most teams will only be ready to compete in Qatar by their third pool game, given they had such little time to train ahead of the World Cup and some went into the finals without a friendly behind them.

“This tournament is going to make you develop and grow as it goes on. If you do that by winning games, it’s an incredible advantage,” he said.

Certainly, the evidence when it comes to Argentina is compelling. They have improved steadily and saved their best performance for arguably their toughest pool opponent.

‘Messi will always be decisive’

That should sound a warning to the other title hopefuls that Lionel Messi and co are starting to click into gear. And they may have some more to go through yet.

Messi trundled around the pitch, only bursting into life when the ball was near him, showing again this is an Argentina side less reliant on him than those from the past, though that does not mean he is not an important player for them.

There are many other players on this side who are growing in stature and they too will be ready to face the Netherlands or the United States in the quarterfinals, provided they can get past the Australians on Saturday.

Messi may be making his last World Cup appearance in Qatar but the talismanic forward is still capable of spurring Argentina to a third World Cup title, his compatriot and former Paris St Germain head coach Mauricio Pochettino said.

Pochettino, who is well aware of Messi’s game-changing abilities having worked with the 35-year-old last season, said he was still the best player in the world.

“Messi will always be decisive. He’s the best player in the world,” Pochettino, 50, told Argentine newspaper Ole.

“Messi has the role today that can give Argentina the World Cup. He’s the clear leader of this team and everyone understands that he’s the leader, all the energy is focused on that.”

The Parisian club parted ways with Pochettino in July after an 18-month stint where he won the 2020-21 French Cup and 2021-22 Ligue 1 title but failed to deliver in the Champions League.

Pochettino also managed Brazilian striker Neymar and France’s Kylian Mbappe at PSG, but said Messi’s ability makes him stand out.

“They’re players who will always surprise you… You can understand the dimension of each one,” Pochettino said. “In football terms, I highlight Messi’s simplicity. The ability to make everything simple.

“It’s very difficult to remember a training session in a year in which I’ve seen him make a technical mistake.”

Argentine fans find faith again

Argentines renewed their hopes in the country’s national soccer team after they defeated Poland.

A sense of euphoria was in the air in the country, particularly in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, where thousands of jubilant fans crowded to watch the match on a giant screen in the park.

“I have a lot of faith in this group. Since the Copa America, they have been fired up, so I have a lot of faith in them,” said Nadir Cabrera, 25, referring to the country’s 2021 regional tournament win.

Argentina needed a win to ensure progress to the knockout stages after that shock opening game defeat.

“We recovered from Arabia and after these two great games, we got excited again!” Uriel Vieitez, 19, told Reuters as he celebrated on the streets of the capital Buenos Aires wearing an Argentina shirt and hat minutes after Argentina’s victory.

Schools suspended classes early and offices suspended work for two hours in the South American country to watch the “Albiceleste” team guaranteeing their place in the knockout stage.

The Argentine team is looking to be crowned world champion again after 36 years since its last World Cup victory when Diego Maradona was the country’s star.

After sealing first place in Group C, Argentina will play on Saturday against Australia in the first knockout round. The winner of that match will then play the winner between the Netherlands and the United States in the quarter-finals.

Messi, who shone in the game against the team led by Polish star Robert Lewandowski, asked once again to the Argentine fans, just like a week ago, to have faith.

“To the people: the same as at the beginning, when we started badly and with a defeat, that we go calmly, that the group is going to continue in this way and hopefully we can continue demonstrating like today,” he said after the match.