As Lionel Messi zigzagged this way and that it sometimes seemed that Argentina’s No 10 must be electrically powered and perhaps operated by remote control.
Although Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister scored the vital breakthrough goal for Lionel Scaloni’s side, it was Messi’s dedication, in equal measure, to bewitching his adoring public and bewildering Poland that really made the difference.
Well before the end everyone had, almost, forgotten that a player who is such a catalyst for his country and who spent much of the game slaloming past often helpless markers had missed a first-half penalty.
When the music stopped and the final whistle blew Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez had joined Mac Allister on the scoresheet yet, miraculously, a thoroughly overwhelmed Poland still followed their tormentors into the knockout stages thanks to a superior goal difference to Mexico.
Talk about progressing by the skin of your teeth. Had Lautaro Martínez not missed a late sitter for Argentina and Saudi Arabia not pulled a goal back against Mexico his opponents would have been boarding a flight to Warsaw today on Thursday. Instead Poland survive to face France on Sunday in the round of 16.
Although they will need to improve considerably it at least means Robert Lewandowski will fight another day at a World Cup. The traffic was far too one way for Poland’s talisman to make the desired impact here but “Lewangoalski” surely deserves at least one more moment in the Doha sun.
Few would bet against its still powerful December rays shining on Messi and Argentina – who meet Australia on Saturday – for a while yet. If Messi exists in anyone’s shadow it is that of the late Diego Maradona. Here, in making his 22nd World Cup appearance, he eclipsed his compatriot’s equivalent tally of 21 games.
Given that every other person pouring into Stadium 974 seemed to be wearing a pale blue and white No 10 shirt with either Maradona or Messi on the back, the latter bore quite some responsibility. Could Messi upstage Lewandowski, Poland’s record goalscorer and the striker who effectively replaced him at Barcelona?
The good news for that adoring audience was that the answer was a resounding “yes”. In persistently destabilising Czeslaw Michniewicz’s defence the Paris Saint-Germain forward swiftly suggested that Lionel Scaloni’s side’s shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C game had been an aberration rather than a symptom of a worrying new structural flaw. In the first 15 minutes alone, Messi forced Wojciech Szczesny into a couple of saves after variously dodging and brushing aside assorted Poland defenders.
Not to be eclipsed entirely, Lewandowski sporadically looked capable of offering a masterclass in the No 9 role but lacked the service to conduct it properly. A glimpse came when, holding the ball up and holding off markers with equal aplomb, he conjured a decent opening for Krystian Bielik but the midfielder responded with a tepid shot directed straight at the underemployed Emiliano Martínez.
“What can I say,” said Michniewicz after watching Lewandowski being regularly marooned in less than splendid isolation as his teammates manned the barricades against an impressively fluent, tempo-setting Argentina. “We didn’t assist Robert.”
In marked contrast Messi received plenty of help from, among others, Scaloni’s left-back Marcos Acuña and their eye-catching interchanges posed considerable problems for Poland’s right-back, Matty Cash. Not that the Aston Villa defender was the only one of Michniewicz’s players experiencing raised stress levels.
The entire team lived dangerously as, to select just a very few examples, Alvarez saw a shot blocked, Acuña headed wide and Szczesny back-pedalled desperately to claw Ángel Di María’s cross out from beneath his crossbar.
It frequently seemed as if the former Arsenal goalkeeper was resisting Scaloni’s blue and white tide single-handed. Typically, Szczesny performed minor wonders to deny Álvarez following Mac Allister’s brilliant pass and then found himself, extremely harshly, deemed to have conceded a penalty after brushing Messi’s face with a hand after the ball had gone.
Precisely why the spot-kick was awarded following a VAR review remains a mystery but justice appeared done when Szczesny dived superbly to his left, extended a gloved hand and saved Messi’s penalty.
With Poland barely touching the ball in Argentina’s half it was extremely one-sided but as long as Michniewicz’s central defenders continued clearing a barrage of crosses the impasse endured.
Their luck ran out a minute into the second half when Nahuel Molina’s cut back reached Mac Allister and, despite failing to make the truest right-footed connection, his shot narrowly evaded Szczesny’s outstretched fingertips before grazing the inside of a post en route to the back of the net. “I was so happy,” said Mac Allister. “It was so emotional for me and the whole squad. We played really well collectively. We managed to find that calm.”
After that Messi’s quick feet – is he really 35? – and even faster brain took over. When Álvarez met Enzo Fernández’s ball, took a controlling touch, swivelled seamlessly and lashed the ball into the roof of the net, it was all over. And Scaloni’s verdict?: “Reassuring.”