Midas touch of Lionel Messi sends Argentina into World Cup quarter-finals

South Americans defeat Australia 2-1 on Saturday and set up last-eight clash with the Netherlands

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Of course, it was him. It had to be. Who else would have stolen his thunder? Who else could have?

Lionel Messi struck down Australia on Saturday night, that lightning-in-a-bottle left foot opening the scoring and paving the way to the World Cup quarter-finals for Argentina.

The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium trembled and then paid tribute. For 90 minutes and more it felt less Al Rayyan and more Rosario. Or anywhere in Argentina.

Their captain had come to conquer. He did just that. In his milestone match, Messi moved within three games of removing that great big millstone from around his neck.

One thousand career matches and counting. By the end of the 1003rd, he could be cradling the one trophy that has eluded him when all others haven’t.

Argentina, two-time world champions, defeated Australia 2-1 on an eventually edgy night to edge on towards what they hope will be a third global title. Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands are next up on Friday.

Australia dispatched, another potential Asian Football Confederation banana skin avoided – just about, after a nervy finale – and Argentina are among the final eight teams at Qatar 2022.

Messi set them on their way. His first telling contribution, the game’s first real action of note, came as an otherwise flat first half crept to its conclusion.

On 35 minutes, the evergreen 35-year-old with a nation’s hopes on his shoulders latched on to Nicolas Otamendi’s touch near the edge of the Australia penalty area and steered his shot low past Mat Ryan.

Messi sprinted in the direction of his adoring fans behind the goal, setting off even before the ball had hit the net. He’s seen it hundreds of times before, anyway: 789 goals in a career almost unapparelled.

In the World Cup alone, it was the ninth time Messi had notched, taking him above the Diego Maradona he hopes to emulate come December 18 in Doha. Only Gabriel Batistuta, with 10 goals in the global finals, has more.

In present day, though, Messi has the Midas touch. The opener against Australia made it 13 goals in his last eight Argentina appearances.

But he was not to do it all by himself. Just before the hour, Argentina appeared to take the contest away from Australia.

Rodrigo De Paul put Ryan under pressure in his area, the goalkeeper took a heavy touch and was robbed by Julian Alvarez, who rolled the ball into the empty net. His second goal in Qatar, the Manchester City forward is clearly enjoying his first World Cup.

Messi, his fifth. Not long after Alvarez, Messi collected the ball in his own half and nearly finished it with the ultimate flourish, only for his shot to be blocked. Maybe he would match Maradona before even lifting the cup.

Then, out of the blue, Australia halved the deficit to tease from Argentina's grip a tense final 15 minutes. Pouncing on a clearance 25 yards from the Argentina goal, Craig Goodwin unleashed a shot that looked destined for the stands. However, it cannoned off Enzo Fernandez and flew past a static Emiliano Martinez.

Australia, attempting to make the quarter-finals for the first time, were back in it. From nowhere. And they possibly should have had another.

Aziz Behich slalomed into the Argentine area, a run as remarkable as Messi’s and, as he bore down on Martinez and prepared to pull the trigger, Lisandro Martinez threw himself at the shot to save his side. Those inside the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium held their collective breath.

They quickly held their heads in their hands. Not for an Australia equaliser, but for Lautaro Martinez’s miss that would have made safe the result. Messi – who else? – laid it on a plate; the Inter Milan attacker miscued wildly.

Then Ryan saved from Exequiel Palacios, Messi curled inches over following a fine run once more, and Ryan repelled Martinez. Still, Argentina were there.

Not quite. Right at the death, Emiliano Martinez saved from substitute Garang Kuol and his teammates piled on top of him in thanks. In relief also. Messi’s big night – aren’t they all at this point? – was safe. Argentina march on.

Updated: December 03, 2022, 9:24 PM