For all his superhuman efforts in almost all parts of the game, Lionel Messi’s penalty record is very, very ordinary, but his 30th career miss from the spot mattered little as his teammates stepped up to fire Argentina to a 2-0 win over Poland and a place in the World Cup last 16.
Billed as Messi’s last chance to win the only major trophy that has eluded him in his career, Argentina knew victory over Poland would earn them top spot in Group C, and a much more favourable route to the final.
All eyes were on the skipper in a raucous atmosphere at Stadium 974, but for those there just to see the 35-year-old superstar, they would have left disappointed by seeing him blow his big chance.
Argentina secured a 13th World Cup knockout round qualification from their last 14 attempts, only this time their extraordinary talisman needed help from his friends to get them there.
The loss, in which Poland offered next to no threat, in the end mattered little, as the European side scraped though on goal difference after Mexico’s victory over Saudi Arabia in a thrilling night of group-stage drama was in vain.
This was essentially a home game for Argentina, with the atmosphere akin to that of the Monumental during a crucial Conmebol qualifier. And the players started the match like a side backed by a home following.
Having taken 40 minutes to muster a shot on goal in their flat first-half display against Mexico, the Albiceleste flew out of the traps against a Poland side buoyed by their win over Saudi Arabia, and Robert Lewandowski’s first-ever World Cup goal, last time out.
With their fervent following trying to suck the ball in with every breath, Messi went on one of his mazy runs early on, sashaying past two defenders, but his near-post effort was well saved.
Manchester City striker Julian Alvarez should have scored from a good position as Argentina continued to push before, out of nowhere, they got a golden chance to take the lead from the penalty spot.
It was as soft a penalty as you will ever see. The contact from Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny on Messi was as much as a father playfully tackling his toddler in the garden.
Another look at pitchside monitor for the Dutch referee just seemed like overkill – he surely would not give it – but surprisingly, the air box was drawn and he pointed to the spot.
However, Juve goalkeeper Szczesny is the penalty-saving king, as he flung himself to his left to brilliantly keep out Messi’s well struck spot kick – the Polish stopper’s second penalty save of the tournament.
For Messi, a 30th miss gives him a 72 per cent career conversion rate from the spot, for club and country. Average, at best.
Any hope that the miss would change the course of the match in Poland’s favour quickly dispersed as less than a minute into the second half Nahuel Molina squared for Alexis Mac Allister to scuff the South Americans into the lead. A nation could finally breathe.
Poland were playing a dangerous game, given they were offering next to nothing in attack, and soon enough Alvarez got the goal his endeavours deserved, arrowing a fine strike into the top corner as Argentina completed the job in style.
Messi, in truth, deserved a goal having been at the heart of everything good about the Copa America winners.
As he has done for Paris Saint-Germain this season, he relished being the creator, placing some sumptuous passes into his teammates and, given the quality of the chances he created, the veteran should have at least had an assist to his name.
His individual performance, however, will not be remembered for what he did, but more for what he didn’t do. The penalty miss is what will stick in minds of those in attendance. Messi, one step closer to the ultimate prize, will not care one bit.
Both teams could celebrate together, as a late Saudi Arabia goal booked Poland a date with France, while Argentina will certainly fancy their chances of a quarter-final berth as it is Australia up next.