By AP and published by US News & World Report
Doha, Qatar – Rest easy, soccer fans. Lionel Messi will grace the World Cup stage at least one more time.
The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0 Wednesday after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez and advanced to the last 16
Argentina finished in first place in Group C to set up a match against Australia, a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage. It was ultimately a happy night for Poland, too, which went through as the group’s second-place team on goal difference ahead of Mexico and will next play defending champion France.
It’s a strong position for Argentina to be in, especially considering the team opened the World Cup with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
Messi’s likely final World Cup rolls onto Saturday and he will be relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after he was hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick.
A largely pro-Argentina crowd, waving flags and scarfs and beating drums behind both goals, had been sweeping Messi and his team along at the 44,000-seat Stadium 974 and they didn’t stop after the penalty. Within seconds, a chant of “MESSI! MESSI!” immediately reverberated around the venue in a bid to keep their idol’s head high.
And the roars were even louder at the start of the second half, first after Mac Allister’s goal — a scruffy finish from Nahuel Molina’s cut-back from the right — in the first minute and again after it became clear Mexico had taken the lead against Saudi Arabia.
Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace all game to Poland with his dribbling ability and vision.
He wasn’t involved in either goal, though. For the second, Enzo Fernandez scooped a pass to Alvarez — selected ahead of Lautaro Martinez — and he took one touch before curling his shot into the top corner in the 67th minute.
The final whistle blew with Poland players still unsure if they were advancing, given the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game was ongoing. A stoppage-time goal by the Saudis made it even harder for Mexico, sparking loud cheers by Poland’s team and the squirting of water from their bottles in the middle of the field.
Mexico beats Saudi Arabia 2-1 but falls short at World Cup
Because of Argentina’s 2-0 victory over Poland in a simultaneous match, Mexico failed to advance out of its group for the first time since 1978.
Mexico had reached the knockout round at the last seven World Cups, second only to Brazil, which has gone through to the round of 16 since 1986.
El Tri went into the match at Lusail Stadium needing both a victory and help from Poland playing across town against Argentina to advance in Group C. Argentina’s victory meant goal difference came into play.
Martin scored in the 48th minute to give El Tri hope, and the team’s chances got even better with Luis Chavez’s goal on a free kick four minutes later.
Mexico tried desperately in the final 20 minutes to get another goal — including an effort by Uriel Antuna in the 87th minute that was ruled offside — but came up short.
Salem Aldawsari scored in second-half stoppage time for Saudi Arabia, which was eliminated along with Mexico.
Martin’s goal ended Mexico’s 431-minute scoring drought at the World Cup, dating back to their second group match at the 2018 tournament in Russia. It was the team’s longest ever stretch without a goal.
Mexico opened the tournament in Qatar with a 0-0 draw against Poland and but fell 2-0 to Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Mexico hadn’t been eliminated from the group stage since the World Cup in Argentina 44 years ago. El Tri didn’t qualify for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and was banned from the 1990 event in Italy for using overage players at an under-20 tournament.
Mexico advanced to the round of 16 in its last seven appearances — but no further. El Tri came to Qatar looking to play in an elusive “quinto partido” — a fifth game — for the first time since Mexico hosted the tournament in 1986.
Saudi Arabia had one of the tournament’s biggest ever upsets ever when it beat Argentina 2-1 in its opener. But the Green Falcons couldn’t pull off another surprise in its second match, a 2-0 loss to Poland.
The Saudis reached the round of 16 back in 1994, the team’s World Cup debut, but haven’t made it past the group stage since.
“Tonight it was difficult to breathe with the intensity Mexico put into the match,” Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard said.
Many of the Saudi team were also part of the squad that went to the 2018 World Cup. But none play outside of their home country. Twelve players on the roster are with Al Hilal, which has won a record 18 Saudi league championships.
Mexico dominated the first half. Orbelin Pineda had one of the best of three good chances for El Tri, but it was easily grabbed by Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais in the 25th minute.
The game turned quickly in Mexico’s favour with Martin’s goal, but the celebration was muted. Chavez’s free kick in the 52nd that went into the upper corner just out of Alowais’ reach brought Mexico’s reserves rushing onto the field.
Hirving Lozano nearly had a third goal but he was offside. Chavez had another free kick that missed as Mexico tried in vain to score more goals.
Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino was roundly criticised for the lack of scoring. He had already been questioned over some of his choices, including his decision to leave all-time leading scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez off the team.
Hernandez, who now plays for the LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer, scored the team’s last goal in a 2-1 group-stage victory over South Korea in Russia.
Top: Argentina’s Lionel Messi smiles during the World Cup group C soccer match between Poland and Argentina at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit and published by US News & World Report
Insert: Mexico’s Kevin Alvarez retracts after the World Cup group C soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Manu Fernandez and published by US News & World Report
Front Page: Poland’s Damian Szymanski, left, tries to stop Argentina’s Lionel Messi during the World Cup group C soccer match between Poland and Argentina at the Stadium 974 in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Photo: AP Photo/Jorge Saenz and published by Yahoo!sport