In a game they needed to win, Argentina overcame a stubborn Mexico side 2-0 thanks to wonderful goals by Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez in a Group C clash of the 2022 FIFA World Cup at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday (November 26).
Sometimes, a moment of otherworldly genius can invigorate even the most mundane of circumstances. The same is true for a football match. Mexico had closed down space and drained all the energy from an increasingly tired and desperate-looking Argentina side in the first half of the game. A game that, one could be forgiven to say, was as dull as dishwater at its nadir.
It needed reawakening, and Argentina needed rescuing, and on cue, up stepped their generational talisman. The Mexicans inexplicably chose to back off in the 64th minute of the game after pressing aggressively till that point, and Messi made them repent in memorable fashion.
Angel Di Maria cut in from the right to find Messi outside the box in a central position. The maestro took one touch and unleashed a low, venomous shot into the far-right corner past the reach of the diving Guillermo Ochoa to give Argentina the lead. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Argentina came into this contest as a battered heavyweight, still recovering from the unexpected blow Saudi Arabia had inflicted on them. They needed a win to tell themselves and their multitudinous supporters that they're still here, still in contention.
Mexico, old prize fighters as they are, knew what they were up against, and their manager Tata Martino had set them up accordingly. Five defenders and three deep midfielders ensured the likes of Lautaro Martinez and Co. had little room to manouever the ball in advanced areas.
Messi had no touches inside the Mexico box in the first half. The Central Americans also resorted to a tough-tackling approach as frayed tempers reared their heads and Albiceleste players retorted in good measure. In fact, all the early running was done by the Mexicans, whose two strikers, Alexis Vega and Hirving Lozano, looked pacey and sharp at the beginning.
Soon though, the game settled into a pattern with Argentina pushing for an opening but coming up against a jungle of feet. Messi's best involvement was a free-kick from an acute angle in the 34th minute, which Ochoa parried nervously. Later, Lisandro Martinez headed over (41st minute) from a corner, while Mexico went close through a fine Vega free-kick in the 45th, which Emi Martinez saved with a dive.
Argentina eked out a decent move in stoppage time with a low cross from the left nearly proving dangeous but to no avail. After Messi opened the scoring in the 64th minute and the assembled Argentine fans found their voice, Mexico made a feeble attempt to restore parity. Their approach was to bring on putative attackers and commit men forward, but they looked as blunt in attack as a rusted knife.
That left them vulnerable to counterattacks Argentina could not capitalize on. However, they did score another beauty of a goal, perhaps a thing of even more aesthetic pleasure than the one by La Pulga.
Benfica star Enzo Fernandez is just 21 but is already making waves in world football. After coming on in the second half, his one moment of magic told us why. From a short corner on the left, the ball was fed to Fernandez, who got past his man with a delectable feint and curled a sumptuous shot into the far corner to send the stadium into a tizzy.
It wasn't a vintage performance from Lionel Scaloni's men by any means, but they live to fight another day. Mexico, meanwhile, look a shadow of the team that has frequently caused ripples at World Cups.
Poland top Group D with four points, with Argentina next with three, who are followed by Saudi Arabia, trailing on goal difference. Mexico are bottom with one point from two games.
On that note, here are the five hits and flops from the game:
#5 Hit - Enzo Fernandez (Argentina)
One can be left to scratch their heads about why Fernandez has not started any of Argentina's games till now, as they seem to lack verve in midfield from a creative standpoint.
He was brought on in the second half of this game with Argentina pushing for goals. Fernandez made 81 per cent of his passes and added a dimension to their game that was required. The goal, well, we have already waxed eloquent about that.
#4 Flop - Lautaro Martinez (Argentina), Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
This wasn't a game for centre-forwards to be proud of. We have two of them at number four here.
It's fair to say, Lautaro Martinez is yet to live up to the lofty expectations that surround him in this World Cup. Although Argentina began in a 4-4-2, Messi is not your conventional striker by any means, dropping deep, drifting wide and making plays in a free-role that's uniquely Messiesque.
In such a scenario, Martinez needs to don the centre-forward's garb, but he failed to do so in this game. Hassled and harried out of contention by the stubborn Mexico defence, Martinez managed just one attempt and was taken off in the 63rd minute by Scaloni.
Lozano, meanwhile, began in a feisty fashion but fizzled out as the game wore on. Clearly more potent as a winger, the talented Napoli man offered as much threat as a toothless tiger up front, with Mexico in general looking unusually effete in attack even when down by a goal.
Lozano had zero shots on target and a woeful 43% pass success from just seven attempts. He was taken off in the 73rd minute.
#3 Hit - Alexis Mac Allister (Argentina)
The Brighton midfielder was a much-needed addition to midfield even though he was taken off in the 69th minute. Mac Allister kept things moving and was neat in midfield with his tidy passing and efficiency. He made 34 of his 38 passes.
#2 Flop - Raul Jimenez (Mexico)
One could include all attacking midfielders and forwards here, but Jimenez is picked, as he was brought on at a crucial juncture of the game when Mexico were looking to shift gears and find the equaliser.
The prodigious striker has had terrible luck with injuries, but he is part of a World Cup team that is counting on him. However, the real Jimenez never turned up and was soundly marked off by the Argentine backline. He had zero attempts on goal, made 64% of his passes and managed 16 ineffectual touches.
#1 Hit - Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Let's not get into the cliches. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; indeed, but this performance wasn't exactly an impeccable performance from the legend. Nevertheless, Messi showed that he can rely on mental strength to overcome adversities at the opportune moment.
He showed that in the 2018 World Cup in crisis against Nigeria with a stunning goal. The PSG man demonstrated that once again with a goal that was indeed out of the top drawer.
After cutting a frustrated and even invisible figure in the first half on the face of some robust marking, Messi turned things around with a wonder goal in a way only he could. Oh, he also got the assist for Fernandez's goal which helped him become the first player to assist in five World Cups.
It seems, it's once again Leo's Sisyphean burden to pull this uneven Argentina team to as high as it can go in what is likely his last Cup. With him around, they can still dream for the ultimate.
Stats courtesy Sofa Score