Messi misses penalty but Argentina progress
A missed penalty from Lionel Messi did not end up proving costly as Argentina booked their place in the last 16 of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar with victory over Poland, who also qualified for the knockout stages despite their defeat.
Messi saw his first-half spot kick saved superbly by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, but Argentina responded with a goal early in the second half from Alexis Mac Allister and a Julian Alvarez strike in the 67th minute to ease to victory.
Argentina ended up top of Group C on six points, while Poland qualified in second on four points, level with Mexico but progressing by virtue of a superior goal difference.
On a tense night of action, Mexico defeated Saudi Arabia 2-1 but were unable to score the third goal that would have sent them through at Poland’s expense.
With Mexico leading 2-0 thanks to goals from Henry Martin and thunderous free-kick from Luis Chavez, at one stage they were level with Poland in the Group C table on points, goal difference, and goals scored – and were behind their rivals purely because of the Poles’ better disciplinary record in Qatar.
That changed when Salem Al Dawsari’s late goal for the Saudis edged Poland ahead on goal difference, although a third goal still would have been enough for Mexico.
When the drama had subsided, it was Argentina who topped the group and set up a last 16 meeting with surprise Group D runners-up Australia.
Poland will face reigning champions France, who suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to Tunisia in their last group game on Wednesday but still finished top of Group D.
Ahead of the World Cup, Argentina were fancied by many as title favorites and headed to Qatar on a 36-match unbeaten run.
They were stunned by Saudi Arabia in their opening game in one of the greatest World Cup upsets of all-time, but bounced back against Mexico thanks to an inspired performance from talisman Messi.
Against Poland, the Argentine captain spurned a chance to put his team in front, missing his spot kick after a VAR check judged that he had been fouled by a stray arm from Szczesny when he was attempting to push the ball clear.
The Polish goalkeeper – who had produced a brilliant double-save from a penalty against Saudi Arabia in his previous match – excelled again as he repelled Messi’s effort with an outstretched right arm.
Szczesny later revealed he had bet Messi €100 that referee Danny Makkelie wouldn’t award him the penalty, for what appeared to be slight contact with Messi’s forehead after he had already headed the ball well wide of goal.
“We spoke before the penalty and I told would bet him €100 that he [referee] wasn’t going to give it,” the goalkeeper told TV2.
“So I’ve lost a bet against Messi. I don't know if that’s allowed at the World Cup – I’m probably going to get banned for it. But I don’t care right now
“I’m not going to pay him either – he doesn’t care about €100 I think he has enough,” added Szczesny.
Lionel Scaloni’s team responded to the setback immediately at the start of the second half when Brighton midfielder Mac Allister rolled a pinpoint finish into the bottom corner.
Alvarez then made it a comfortable evening with a stunning whipped strike for Argentina’s second.
Poland were largely uninspiring, with Robert Lewandowski isolated in attack and the team conceding a staggering 74% of possession to their opponents.
In the end, an opening draw against Mexico and a win against Saudi Arabia were enough to send the Poles through – although they will not be tipped by many to overcome France when they meet at Al Thumama Stadium on Sunday.
Argentina meanwhile will be strong favorites when they face Australia at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday.