Argentina turn on the class eventually as Poland sneak through to last-16

Poland? They were wretched and offered nothing. But neither had Mexico against Argentina and the Poles progressed on the basis of having a better goals difference than the Mexicans, who conceded late in stoppage time against Saudi Arabia
Argentina turn on the class eventually as Poland sneak through to last-16

BUILDING MOMENTUM: Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates. Pic: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Poland 0 Argentina 2 

Here we were, 70-odd minutes ticking along on the Stadium 974 clock and counting yellow cards to try to work out who would survive and who would go home.

And the only surprise? It wasn’t Argentina who were counting too. They were safe and coasting towards a last-16 showdown with Australia, of all teams. How did they get it so easy? The hard way of course. For a while at least.

A missed Lionel Messi penalty, after a quite preposterous award was offset by a brilliant Wojciech Szczesny save, was the peak of it but there was more. For 45 minutes they struggled mightily to break down a Polish side who didn’t want to be here but yet somehow still are.

Much like their great rivals finding a way to win without Neymar at this same stadium 48 hours earlier, one of the many positives for Lionel Scaloni was that his side didn’t need to rely on Lionel Messi to haul them clear of the chaos of the World Cup’s most pitiful group. Now they head for knockout football and the Socceroos having found momentum, other match-winners in the shape of Alexis Mac Allister and the brilliant Julian Alvarez. In Enzo Fernandez they have a midfield gem growing into a tournament. 

They even had defensive solidity too, back-to-back clean sheets helping them recover and progress.

Poland? They were wretched and offered nothing. But neither had Mexico against Argentina and the Poles progressed on the basis of having a better goals difference than the Mexicans, who conceded late in stoppage time against Saudi Arabia. So they both celebrated on the field at full-time, Robert Lewandowski leaping and champagne-ing water on teammates after 90 minutes in which they had a single shot, off target, and 24 per cent possession. It was bizarre but, of course, deafeningly loud too.

Behind the opposing goals, FIFA usually sets aside a block for each nation, a bank of clashing colours calling the ball towards or beckoning it away from their end. Here though, the blocks were only powder blue and white striped, a couple of not-so-much islands as sandbanks of Polish red in danger of being inundated by the rising Albiceleste waters as we readied for kickoff.

World Cup games aren’t supposed to sound like this, to feel like this for the opposition. Poland were the away team on neutral territory. Stadium 974 had become La Bombonera, Qatar’s shipping container stadium now a chocolate box of Argentina tension. Why always them?

From the get go, it was always them. Argentina were on the ball for what seemed like the entirety of the first-half. Polish ambition and adventure was rarer than the red in the stands. In essence they sat there and asked Argentina to beat them. The question was whether Scaloni’s side could?

We saw some hints that it would take them a while to find an answer. The first shot on goal was Messi’s and was preceded by something rarer than a penalty miss from him — a successful tackle. Left back Marcus Acuna was bombing forward as an auxiliary winger and getting some change out of Matty Cash. But he couldn’t spend it.

Each time Messi or Angel Di Maria would send one over to the Cash-Acuna corner it would result in a block or a blind-alley run. Midway through the half Di Maria switched over to see if he could have more joy. He’d have precious little but Argentina were trying to turn a screw, even if they were doing so with a pliers.

Up the other end Lewandowski could have been playing in those lederhosen he’d worn after Bayern title wins. He was a spectator, an interested one undoubtedly but with no say or input in affairs.

The penalty incident came amid a brief flurry of corners and crosses. Alvarez, in for Lauturo Martinez and going nowhere now, sent a deep ball towards the back post and Messi tried to rise past the despairing reach of Szczesny. He put the head harmlessly wide but the goalkeeper’s hand made contact with his face.

Danny Makkelie is supposed to be one of Europe’s best officials, supposed to be able to make the smart and right decision whether a place is as partisan as this or not. Instead this was a Budweiser man-of-the-match call, a surrender to celebrity over logic or law. Justice came from Szczesny’s steel-strong right hand, sending Messi’s effort shooting off to his left as the great one racked up the 31st penalty miss of his career. In a frantic few minutes after, the Juventus keeper blocked a couple more for good measure.

We all took a breather and 53 seconds after the restart the exhalation of air and ecstasy was enough to fill the 974 containers and plenty more besides. Right back Nahuel Molina sent over a scuffed cross but Mac Allister’s run was timed perfectly and he somehow slide it between two defenders but away from the despairing Szczesny. A first goal of the tournament in which Messi had played no part. No bad thing.

Poland stayed pathetic. So Argentina did it again, another Messi-less goal, Fernandez brilliantly finding Alvarez on 67 minutes and the Manchester City striker finishing wonderfully. There were more chances to extend the lead and get the goal that would deservedly send the Poles home, Alvarez coming closest.

Argentina’s path to the last four now runs through Australia and the winners of the Netherlands and the USA. It’s hardly daunting. On their wandering road through this tournament's group of death, devoid of so much, they’ve found plenty. 

As their two banks sang and chanted on fully 20 minutes after the final whistle, you sense suddenly that they’re not going anywhere any time soon.

Poland (4-3-1-2): Szczesny 7; Cash 5, Glik 6, Kiwior 5, Bereszynski 5 (Jędrzejczyk 73); Bielik 5 (Szymanski 63), Krychowiak 5 (Piątek 84), Zieliński 5; Frankowski 4 (Skoras HT); Swiderski 4 (Kamiński HT), Lewandowski 4.

Booked: Krychowiak.

Argentina (4-3-3): Martinez 7; Molina 7, Otamendi 7, Romero 7, Acuna 6 (Tagliafico 60); Mac Allister 8 (Almada 84), De Paul 6, Fernandez 8 (Pezzella 79); Di Maria 6 (Paredes 59), Alvarez 8 (Martinez 79), Messi 7.

Booked: Acuna 

Referee: Danny Makkelie (NED) 2 

Att: 44,089

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