Lionel Messi’s indisputable record of qualifying for the knockout stage of a tournament for club and country remains intact after Argentina breezed past Poland with a 2-0 victory on Wednesday night in the FIFA World Cup.
The relentless Argentinians failed to score in the first half, but wave after wave of attacks in the second half broke the defensive lines of the Polish.
Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez’s thunderous strikes ensured a Round of 16 spots for the La Albiceleste, who have now fixed a date with Australia on December 3 at the Ahmad bin Ali stadium.
Poland was lucky to go through to the next round courtesy of a better goal difference than Mexico, who had the game by the throat until the 95th minute against Saudi Arabia.
The Argentinians could have won with a better margin of goals, but Poland’s number one, Wojciech Szczęsny, decided that he will by hook or crook keep his team in play until the final whistle.
In the first half, Szczęsny came off his line to punch the ball away but hit Messi in the face. After much deliberation, the referee awarded a penalty to Argentina and Messi came forward to take it.
The eternal number 10 for Argentina had once converted a penalty against Saudi Arabia earlier in the tournament. Everyone expected the scoreline to read 1-0.
This was enough to rattle and scare the Polish players, who looked at their goalkeeper, imparting words of confidence.
If the penalty would have gone in, it would have been extremely unpleasant for the Polish who came out on the pitch only to defend.
However, Szczęsny wasn’t bothered at all. It didn’t seem to matter to him that it was the world’s greatest player at the spot, about to hurl the ball his way.
He might have remembered that Messi had earlier missed a penalty against Iceland in the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but what were the odds that it would happen again?
Szczęsny stood tall, and winked at his teammates, signalling; ‘I got this. Calm down.’
The Juventus goalkeeper’s self-belief paid off. Messi made his run and hit the ball to the right of the goalpost. Szczęsny analyzed it correctly and jumped in the same direction, hurling the ball away from the goal.
The Polish players jumped in ecstasy. They ran to Szczęsny who, with ice running in his veins, looked as if it was nothing as if Messi taking a penalty is nothing.
This save turned out to be the most crucial save for Poland. If this would have gone in, Poland would have lost 3-0 and Mexico would have made it to the Round of 16 on a better goal difference.
It wasn’t Robert Lewandowski who led Poland to the knockout stage. It was Szczęsny, Arsenal’s former number one and Juventus’ current.
Let’s hope that he returns to save the day again when Poland meets France in the Round of 16. Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, and Olivier Giroud might not be so careless with their penalty kicks.