AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP)Lionel Messi was pushed into the middle of a joyous post-match huddle as Argentina’s players jumped up and down to celebrate reaching the World Cup quarterfinals.
Messi delivered again for his country, marking the 1,000th game of his era-defining career with his first goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup to lead Argentina to a 2-1 win over Australia on Saturday.
This was not the walkover most were expecting against the unheralded Australians, though.
At the final whistle, Argentina was just as grateful for its goalkeeper as the No. 10 with magic in his boots.
Emi Martinez came up with a sprawling save in the last seconds of an increasingly anxious match to prevent the need for extra time and the potential of another shock in a World Cup full of them.
”That is the World Cup for you,” Messi said. ”All the matches are difficult and what’s important is that you win.”
With a flourish of his famous left foot in the 35th minute, Messi put Argentina ahead with his third goal at this year’s tournament and ninth in total at the World Cup – one more than Diego Maradona.
”Wow, he’s just remarkable,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said.
Julian Alvarez pounced on a heavy touch by Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to tap into an empty net for the second goal, but this was no cruise to a quarterfinal meeting with the Netherlands.
Australia’s fightback in the final 20 minutes was as stirring as it was unexpected. Craig Goodwin’s shot deflected into the net off Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez in the 77th. Then, amid a late aerial bombardment from the Australians, Garang Kuol had a dramatic chance when he was left free at the far post. Shooting on the turn, his effort was smothered by Martinez and two Argentina players fell on top of their goalkeeper in relief as much as happiness.
”Before we came here, people were saying we were the worst team at the World Cup and the worst Socceroos team ever,” Arnold said. ”That’s gone now.”
On the only other occasion Australia reached the last 16 – in 2006 – the team lost to eventual champion Italy.
Maybe it’s an omen for Argentina, which has fully recovered from its shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening group match and won three straight games.
As for Messi, he now has 789 goals in a career that might yet reach a crescendo on Dec. 18 by winning soccer’s biggest trophy in his fifth and likely last World Cup.
The dream is still alive for the seven-time world player of the year and the tens of thousands of Argentina fans who dominated the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, massively outnumbering the small pockets of green-and-gold-clad Australia supporters to make it feel like a match in Buenos Aires or Rosario.
Argentina’s players linked arms and formed a long line to celebrate in front of their scarf-waving fans at one of end of the stadium after the game.
”The whole of Argentina would like to be here, but it’s not possible,” Messi said. ”This bond, this union we have, it’s beautiful.”
Messi had been quiet before his goal, crowded out by a compact and defensively solid Australia team. He’s never quiet for long, though.
He sent a pass inside to the edge of the area and kept running, eventually receiving a lay-off from Nicolas Otamendi to take one touch and stroke his finish through the long legs of Australia defender Harry Souttar – the tallest outfield player at the World Cup.
When Alvarez added the second to score in successive games, Australia looked out of it and Messi began to put on a show.
One 40-meter (yard) dribble wowed the crowd as he slalomed past three defenders and was tackled just as he was about to shoot.
”MESSI! MESSI!” came the chant.
Messi used his control and vision to set up two opportunities in the frantic finale – one being curled over the crossbar by Martinez – before Australia came on strong after putting Souttar up front in stoppage time for his aerial threat.
”We gave it everything,” Australia striker Jackson Irvine said through tears, ”but it wasn’t enough.”
Argentina and the Netherlands will play their quarterfinal match at Lusail Stadium, the 89,000-seat venue where the final will be staged. The teams last met at the World Cup in 2014, when Argentina won a penalty shootout in the semifinals.
Angel Di Maria, who linked up well with Messi during the group stage, missed the match because he hadn’t recovered from a thigh injury. ”Hopefully he will be able to play (against the Netherlands),” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. ”He wasn’t ready for today.”
Messi is one goal behind Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 10 for Argentina at World Cups.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
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