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Lionel Messi and Argentina overcome Poland’s anti-football as both sides advance

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On a night when a resurgent Argentina could have made it so hard for themselves, the only difficulty was the maths underneath them – and watching this Poland team.

Rarely can a side have qualified for the last 16 in such an unappealing way.

Lionel Messi even missed a penalty but Poland were still beaten with ease, resting on a 2-0 defeat to put them through by the most ludicrously thin of margins.

It was the definition of anti-football, right down to how second place was almost decided by yellow cards before a late Saudi Arabia goal against Mexico.

What a waste of Robert Lewandowski – and yet he will see the full value in this defeat. He’s still in this World Cup. So is Messi. This never came close to being his last World Cup game in the end.

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Winning the group was instead a formality for Argentina, and could yet be influential to winning this trophy. That might seem as histrionically reactive as this Argentina team themselves, but a transformation was undeniably visible.

There is an important change in their very path, too. This victory meant that, rather than a grandstand last-16 rematch with France, Argentina instead get the comparatively more forgiving game against Australia. They will surely go into that with none of the nerves we saw before this win. It was instead as if Messi’s goal against Mexico restored something in them, replenished their conviction.

It could be seen most of all in Nahuel Molina’s driven ball for Alexis Mac Allister’s opener, and then Julio Alvarez’s sensational touch-and-finish for the clincher. Through all of that, and even after what could have been yet another big career penalty miss, Messi was running everything.

Argentina were back looking like the team that went on that long unbeaten run before this World Cup, controlled, with a historically good playmaker, but also some old-fashioned aggression that accentuates their qualities and makes them even more difficult to get at.

It was Poland who instead looked nervous and – to be blunt – pitiful here, and they just couldn’t get close to Argentina’s goal. They instead amassed the entire team other than Robert Lewandowski around Wojciech Szczesny’s goal, and pretty much hoped for the best.

There was one moment when the ball dropped for the striker, only for Nicolas Otamendi to abrasively clear because Lewandowski had no one to give it to.

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It meant Argentina just kept coming, the flow of the game always going one way. That was eventually going to bring incidents, and breakthroughs.

Alvarez had an effort cleared away after Szczesny was beaten. One save almost landed for Oscar De Paul. There was then the most contentious moment of the match, when the goalkeeper was adjudged to have hit Messi as he came for a cross.

It just didn’t look a penalty. It did, however, look like the set-up for something everyone in the stadium could see coming.

Everyone would have seen it before, after all. Messi hit the ball in precisely the way he always in these peculiarly common big penalty misses, which was mid-height and to the goalkeeper’s left. Szczesny knew which way he was going and got a strong hand.

You could say justice was done which was almost emphasised by how everyone got on with it as if nothing had happened. The game continued in exactly the same pattern. Even Messi seemed unfazed.

It wasn’t to be one of those moments that Argentina dwelt on, and made them feel everything was going against them.

They just got on with it, Molina driving in one of those balls, and Mac Allister getting enough on it to get it past Szczesny.

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The result of the game at that point was inevitable. It was only ever going to be an Argentina win. The grand suspense, however, revolved around the score and whether there would be enough of a swing in either game to send Poland out.

The European side seemed almost totally uninterested in trying to affect that themselves. They were trying to protect what they had from very early on, which was at once cowardly in a football sense but also ran an immense risk given what Mexico were doing to Saudi Arabia.

There was then what Argentina were doing to them. Messi kept coming. He seemed to be surging through every time Argentina went forward.

The ball was eventually worked through to Alvarez for a thunderous goal.

The roof was raised in another stadium packed with Argentina supporters. Poland continued to try and batten everything down.

It should be acknowledged there was some impressive defiance and resilience at that stage. Szczesny, who did himself credit, stopped from Messi to basically keep Poland in the World Cup.

When the goalkeeper was finally beaten by a sumptuous clip from Nicolas Tagliafico, Jakub Kiwior then got back to clear it off the line.

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It might have been one of the most important touches in modern Polish football history. It just came amid one of the most pitiful displays.

They will care as much about at that as Messi does about his penalty miss. All that matters is what next. Poland have France, which is maybe another form of justice for this. Argentina have Australia, and suddenly a totally different out look.

Source: Independent

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