Nothing so precious ever came easy. Argentina qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a performance that mixed two parts ecstasy with one part pain. They secured a two-goal lead through Lionel Messi and Julián Álvarez, played some of their most unbridled and enchanting football of the tournament to date, bombarded the Australian goal with shots during a gripping second half.
And yet, did you expect Australia to sit down and accept their fate? This Australia, with its SPFL stalwarts, its honest companions? Australia took the hard way into Qatar and they took the hard way out, outgunned but never outrun, even pushing in a late consolation goal and threatening with an almighty shock.
They should not be filled with famous names. They may be driven around for an hour by the world’s best player. But they left every bit of themselves on that field, and somehow you feel the game Down Under will never be the same again.
For half an hour it seemed that Australia might succeed in dragging Argentina to their level. They may have been outnumbered in the stands, where Albiceleste’s armies wrapped a tight tourniquet of noise around the field and barely stopped squeezing. But on the field, it was the gold shirts that initially looked busier, more vibrant and more numerous. They covered more ground, won the most second balls, counterattacked in decent numbers.
Argentina, on the other hand, looked a little sleepy, having endured an exhausting game against Poland three nights earlier. While they held the ball well, the urgency and skill and speculative runs weren’t quite there. Their press was surprisingly light: indeed not so much a press as a series of polite questions. Keanu Baccus, from St Mirren, played a good game in the Australian midfield.
Meanwhile, Messi twisted and turned away. He felt the channels, searching from wing to wing, diving deep into the green waters of midfield. He was fouled by Keanu Baccus, of St Mirren. He saw a few steps cut out. It was, in other words, a quiet kind of game for the world’s best player. It was then that Aziz Behich, of Dundee United, did something he might regret during the debrief.
It was 10 minutes before the break and Messi was struggling for a ball by the right flank. Behich, of Dundee United, pushed him off the ball, grabbed a piece of his shirt and gave Messi a sharp Melburnian sledge the contents of which will sadly be lost to history. Messi’s angry reaction was the first real human moment we’d seen from him all night.
Maybe it meant something. Maybe it meant nothing. All we know is that a few seconds later, Messi picked up the ball on the right wing, hit it from 30 yards out to Alexis Mac Allister and charged into the penalty area. With a speed and conviction we haven’t always seen from him this tournament, he picked up Mac Allister’s pass through Nicolás Otamendi’s touch and slid the ball into the bottom corner as he’s done hundreds of times before, but never through the legs . from Harry Souttar, from Stoke City. It was his first kick in the penalty area in the entire game.
That was the signal for Lionel Scaloni to change something. In the second half, he brought in Lisandro Martínez and switched to a back three. Was he burned by the defeat against Saudi Arabia? Anyway, it gave Argentina a breadth and verticality to suit them, and Australia started moving forward. They now played with more energy, more brio and swagger. Messi made some solid runs that evoked his thrilling climax. And when FC Copenhagen’s Mat Ryan got a routine back pass, Rodrigo de Paul sprinted over and closed his corners in murderous fashion.
Ryan tried to dribble his way out of trouble. It was a moment of pure impulse, the kind of act where you can already hear the crowd’s cheers, maybe even glimpse your fleeting moment of viral fame. Unfortunately, while dodging De Paul, he forgot that Álvarez was lurking behind him. Álvarez shot the ball in. Álvarez finished beautifully with his momentum taking him off target. Ryan blinked blankly. He could hear the cries of applause. He was able to catch a glimpse of the viral fame. But this was not as he had planned.
But things didn’t go quite as Argentina planned either. Scaloni rolled out his substitutes, the drummers in Argentina brought them home and thoughts began to turn to the quarterfinals against the Netherlands. It was at this point that Adelaide United’s Craig Goodwin took a wild shot from 30 yards out. Enzo Fernández got a deflection on it. And somehow the ball rolled into the top corner a second later, with Emi Martínez totally stunned.
For a few minutes, the Australian players trembled with faith, their fans with disbelief. They would have their moments too: Behich of Dundee United with the kind of brilliant maze dribble they are used to at Tannadice Park, Lisandro Martínez with a prodigious block. In the last seconds of stoppage time, Garang Kuol was alone with Emi Martínez, who saved his shot with a flying left hand. Argentina breathed again, and now they are dreaming again.