It’s sometimes setbacks that steal teams in big tournaments; World Cup history is full of examples. Then when the effects of a dramatic initial defeat are reversed and fresh energy is released. Seen in this way, Argentina laid the foundation for receiving the “tournament team” label at this World Cup. After a dramatic 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia in their opening game, Argentina clinched two wins and advanced to the round of 16. The win over Mexico was followed by a 2-0 win over bunny-footed Poland, with goals from Alexis McAllister (46′) and Julián Álvarez (68′).
But Poland also celebrated when their own game was over. Because then the news got through that Saudi Arabia had reduced the scoreline to 2-1 against Mexico – and that the Poles were allowed to advance to the knockout stages because of the better goal difference. World champion France is waiting for Poland; Argentina meets Australia.
The duel between Argentina and Poland had previously been condensed into a duel between the captains of both teams. Lionel Messi versus Robert Lewandowski. Like it was a boxing match and not a soccer game. Argentina’s number ’10’ versus Poland’s (and Barcelona’s) number ‘9’. This reduction of the collective to a single name made sense, at least in the case of the Polish national team. Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz basically put his whole team on the defensive. And declared Lewandowski to be a lonely poet looking for inspiration. Because Poland went into the last group game as leaders – and knew that one point would be enough for promotion to the round of 16.
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saves one ball after the other
The Argentines – and Messi – on the other hand, were basically doomed to win after their crushing 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia in their opening game. And never lose. They looked for their salvation in attack and showed themselves to be full of initiative from the start. Lionel Messi in particular, who seemed acclimated. And who played as agile and relaxed as in any of the previous World Cup games.
Evidence of this was a shot from an acute angle in the tenth minute, which Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny parried. And also the assist that he gave seven minutes later to left-back Acuña, who was far into the opposing half (17′). The Argentines increasingly pushed Poland against the wall: Julián Álvarez and Acuña – two of four new players compared to the previous game against Mexico – failed in a double chance; shortly thereafter the Szczesny show began. First he deflected a corner curled directly onto goal by Ángel Di María over the crossbar. In the next dangerous scene, he looked less good: he calculated a cross sharply – and caught Lionel Messi in the six-yard box in the head with his arm. And with that came the hour of the most controversial video referee in the world: Pol van Boekel.
The Dutchman, who attracted attention in various Champions League games with controversial decisions, called the referee to the screen and convinced him to award a penalty. That was more than just a tough decision. But there was such a thing as compensatory justice. Messi stepped up, shot sharply into the right corner. Szczęsny parried the ball brilliantly with his right hand. Authentic Argentinian fans, who were in the thousands at 974 Stadium, shouted “Meeesssi, Messsi, Messsi”.
It may have helped calm the Argentines’ depression as they headed into the dressing room. In any case, they found the lead immediately after the restart – through Alexis Mac Allister. He hit a cross from right-back Nahuel Molina so absurdly badly that the ball rolled perfectly to the left inside post and from there into the goal. Poland simulated a few attacks and almost got an entirely undeserved equalizer: Kamil Glick was unlucky with a header from close range (67′).
The rest was mostly a monologue from the Argentines, who were gaining strength, and Álvarez made it 2-0: Álvarez struck the top right corner from 14 meters after a pass from Enzo Fernández. There were more chances for the Argentines, including one from Messi in a half-field solo. But the game shifted from the field to the heads. Poland had to tremble because Mexico was leading against Saudi Arabia. The teams were tied on points and goals, only the number of yellow cards received kept Poland in the tournament at times. But in the end the Saudis scored – and Poland could finally celebrate.