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Argentina 2 Poland 0: World Cup drama as Poles lose but go through with Messi and Co ahead of Mexico on GOAL DIFFERENCE

FOR a while, it threatened to be the cruellest of goodbyes.

When Lionel Messi trudged off at half-time, having had a penalty brilliantly saved by Wojciech Szczesny, there was a real chance that the great Argentinian’s last tango at the World Cup could end with an almighty pratfall.  

Alexis Mac Allister opened the scoring for Argentina
Julian Alvarez made it two with a fine finish
Poland players celebrated at full-time, despite the defeat

Thankfully, if you’re a purist, Messi was reprieved by goals from Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez of Manchester City, which sent Argentina through to the last 16 and a meeting with Australia’s great under-dingos. 

Poland – by the skin of their teeth – still reached the World Cup knock-out stage for the first time since 1986, where they will play defending champions France.

They were dead level in second with Mexico, pipping them on a fair-play countback, until a Saudi Arabian consolation goal sent them through on goal difference instead. 

This was after Mexico had three goals disallowed as Polish nerves were put through the shredder.   

Despite the penalty miss – and it should never really have been a penalty anyway – Messi was brilliant. 

Casually brilliant, as he always is, even on a relatively quiet night. 

This is his fifth World Cup, and he will turn 39 during the next one, so he is not expected to make it. 

But the draw is opening up nicely for Argentina, who outclassed Poland and would have hammered them but for a first-half masterclass from Juventus keeper Szczesny. 

That stunning opening defeat by Saudi Arabia just feels like a minor embarrassment now. 

Messi has yet to win the big one, and has only once reached the semis, when Argentina were eventually beaten by Germany in the 2014 final.  

Here at Stadium 974, this bizarre construction partially built from shipping containers, Argentina fans dominated – most of them Argentinian but also plenty of locals who have adopted them since Messi joined Qatari-owned Paris St Germain. 

They were all here – even the Poles – to witness the little maestro at a World Cup. 

And whenever you watch Messi in the flesh – especially from up in the Gods, like here in Doha or at the Nou Camp in his pomp – it’s always funny and it never gets old. 

The majority of the time he ambles around like a bandy-legged man on a leisurely Sunday morning stroll.

It’s as if he is giving the middle finger to all those sports scientists preaching the high press, tracking back, yardage stats.

Asking Messi to be your first line of defence would be like sending Picasso for a shift down a coal mine.

This game isn’t a science to Messi, it’s art, it’s entertainment.

For opposition defenders, it’s a beautiful kind of cruelty. 

But when he senses the arrival of the ball – always quicker than anybody else does – the ambling man morphs into a greyhound. 

He darts, he glides, he swivels, he dribbles, he wriggles, he teases, he taunts. 

Early on, Messi mugged Krystian Bielik and tested Szczesny.

Then Angel Di Maria squared it and Messi hared his way around two defenders before his angled shot was pushed away by Szczesny at his near post. 

Alvarez was next to try out the Polish keeper, then full-back Marcos Acuna drilled just wide. 

Messi does not have a monopoly on sorcery in this Argentina side. 

Di Maria, quite deliberately, almost scored direct from a swerving corner, Szczesny back-pedalling to push it over

It was the Szczesny show.

Next, the former Arsenal keeper clawed away an Alvarez shot, then he flapped at a cross, missed it and caught Messi in the face with his glove. 

The VAR told ref Danny Makkelie to have a look and the Dutchman duly pointed to the spot. 

It was soft, if not plain wrong, and Szczesny’s smile dripped with sarcasm as he wondered whether the penalty would have been awarded to any other “victim”.

But then he plunged low to his left, stuck up his right hand and kept out a decent spot-kick from the little big man. 

This seemed to get the GOAT going and Messi began to drop deeper and dribble with increased regularity, never quite forcing a way through. 

Two minutes into the second half, though, Szczesny was finally beaten – by a shot he might have saved if it had been hit better. 

Molina’s cut back was scuffed by Mac Allister and went in off the far post. 

The place erupted.

The Argentinians bounced and swayed and hollered.   

Poland almost equalised immediately when Kamil Glick headed wide. 

Messi went on a lengthy dribble but shanked his shot. 

By this time, Mexico had opened up a 2-0 lead against the Saudis and were putting Poland’s progress in peril. 

Argentina were beginning to strut and swagger and their second goal was a peach.

Enzo Fernandez advanced and released Enzo Fernandez who bent his shot inside the far corner.

Now Mexico and the Poles were dead level.

Messi pinged the pass of the night to release Alvarez, who could only find the side-netting.  

Lautaro Martinez dragged a shot wide after being released by a dodgy back-pass and Jakub Kiwor headed off the line to deny Nicolas Tagliafico.

After the final whistle blew here, news filtered through of the Saudi goal which secured Poland’s qualification.

On the basis of this toothless showing, they will not advance any further.

Poland are into the knockout stages on goal difference

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