Lionel Messi rescued Argentina from the brink of World Cup elimination, scoring the crucial opening goal in a 2-0 win over Mexico at Lusail Iconic Stadium in Qatar to put the South American champions back on track to reach the last 16.
Argentina were being frustrated Saturday by a stubborn, physical Mexico side until Messi produced a moment of magic, firing the ball low into the corner of the net from 20 yards in the 64th minute.
With the deadlock broken and space finally starting to open up, Enzo Fernandez curled in a brilliant first goal for his country in the 87th minute to ensure the vital three points.
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After a stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opener Tuesday, Argentina knew that a defeat against Mexico would see them eliminated from the competition while a draw would leave their hopes hanging by a thread.
But thanks to the two moments of magic from Messi and Fernandez, one of the pre-tournament favorites will go into their final Group C match in second place, one point behind their next opponent, Poland.
A win would be enough to guarantee their progress to the knockout stage, while a draw could be sufficient depending on the result of the other remaining game.
Mexico, who again offered precious little going forward, have just a single point from their first two games following an opening goalless draw with Poland. El Tri will need to beat Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to stand a chance of finishing in the top two.
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“It was a complicated game to lift ourselves up for, because Mexico played really well,” Messi told Argentine TV. “In the first half, we played with intensity, and in the second half, we calmed down a bit and we came back to ourselves.
“We knew that today we had to win, that another World Cup started for us and we knew what to do. We cannot let our guard down now. We have all finals left to play; we cannot err. We knew that the response from our fans would be like this and I think we complied. We have been all hand in hand together for a long time.”
With the prospect of an Argentina elimination, tensions were high on and off the ball in a scrappy first half as the two sets of fans created an electric atmosphere in the stadium. The crowd of 88,966 was the largest at a men’s World Cup since the 1994 final at the Rose Bowl in California (94,194).
The opening period did not live up to the match’s billing, with neither team wanting to commit too many players forward, and apart from a free kick by Mexico’s Luis Chavez in the ninth minute that sailed past the goalmouth, there were few chances.
Mexico’s high-pressing game stifled most of their opponent’s attack, and Argentine talisman Messi struggled to find any space to maneuver in a congested midfield.
Apart from a Lautaro Martinez effort that was well off the mark and another from Messi, Argentina were toothless up front.
But in a major blow to Mexico, skipper Andres Guardado, a veteran of five World Cups who had been a commanding presence in midfield, had to be taken off injured in the 42nd minute.
The Mexican team still carved out two more chances before the break, with Alexis Vega first curling a free kick over the wall for keeper Emiliano Martinez to save and minutes later thundering a shot over the bar.
The South Americans looked more determined after the break but had no real chance before their 35-year-old captain dragged them out of trouble with his second goal of the tournament.
The stadium erupted in cheers once more with Fernandez’s late strike, which sealed Argentina’s first win in the tournament and rekindled Messi’s hopes of a first-ever World Cup title.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.