Every game from here on could be Messi’s last on the World Cup stage, and the superstar played like it by leading La Albiceleste’s charge until the very last minute. At his fifth World Cup, the 35-year-old was brilliant, slicing through Australia’s defense with a handful of highlight reel runs while scoring his first-ever goal in the World Cup knockout stage.
Yet after going down 2–0 on a goalkeeper error in the second half, Australia bounced back quickly with a goal of its own and multiple close chances that were nearly equalizers, including a hectic final scramble that required a brilliant save from Emiliano Martínez to secure the win.
Argentina, who got off to a disastrous start with its shocking loss to Saudi Arabia to open the group stage before a pair of 2–0 wins against Mexico and Poland won the group, will now face the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, the Socceroos surprise run to the knockouts, which included wins against Tunisia and Denmark, comes to an end.
Saturday’s match marked a milestone for Messi, who made his 1000th appearance for club and country while Mat Ryan and Mathew Leckie jointly set the Australian men’s record for World Cup appearances with 10.
Australia was happy to sit back in the opening 10 minutes as Argentina tried to pass around the Socceroos to no avail. There were no shots between the two sides in the first 15 minutes.
The Socceroos earned a corner in the 24th minute for the first true action of the game, but Australia wasn’t able to threaten. Five minutes later, Australia had another chance on corner via the six-foot-four defender Harry Souttar, but his header was sent into a cluster of Argentina defenders.
But Argentina would strike first in the 35th minute courtesy of Messi in what was the superstar’s ninth World Cup goal. At the edge of the area, Messi took a quick pass from Nicolás Otamendi, steadied his feet and then sent a low shot through the legs of Souttar that sped into the far corner of the goal.
Just after the halftime break, Martínez didn’t do Argentina any favors when he allowed Mitchell Duke to close him down and get a piece of his clearance, although the deflection was not directed toward goal.
In the 57th minute, Álvarez doubled Argentina’s lead by capitalizing on a mistake from the Australian goalkeeper. After Ryan took a back pass, two Argentina attackers converged on the goalkeeper, which forced the ball loose as Álvarez pounced on the chance and sent it in.
Messi dazzled the crowd—and the Australian defense—in the 65th minute when he dribbled around a host of Australian defenders from midfield all the way to the penalty area, but his chance at goal was deflected and went out for a corner.
Australia pulled one back in the 77th minute courtesy of Craig Goodwin. The second-half substitute’s shot took a massive deflection off Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernández, leaving Martínez with no chance to make the save in goal.
The Socceroos nearly found an equalizer in the 82nd minute when Aziz Behich made a thunderous run down the left, cut into the Argentina area past multiple defenders with a head full of steam before sending a shot in front of goal that was blocked just in the knick of time by Lisandro Martínez.
In the 88th minute, Messi went on another slaloming run through the Australian defense, dragging defenders toward him before dishing off to a wide open Lautaro Martínez. However, the Inter Milan striker skied his curling effort over the ball despite having plenty of time to beat the keeper.
Messi set Martínez up with another golden chance in the 93rd minute, but this time Ryan rushed out to make a solid save. Moments later, Messi continued to bedevil Australian defenders and curled a chance just beyond the post from close range.
Argentina had one massive scare in the final minute of stoppage time during a series of last-ditch chances from Australia. After sending a barrage of crosses into the area that was denied, one dangerous ball in slipped through the defense and fell to Garang Kuol. The 19-year-old forward turned and sent a shot toward goal that was barely saved by the outstretched arm of Martínez, who then fell on the ball in a chance that proved to be the final action of the match.
Here were the lineups for both sides:
Full World Cup squads:
GOALKEEPERS: Franco Armani (River Plate), Emi Martínez (Aston Villa), Gerónimo Rulli (Villarreal)
DEFENDERS: Marcos Acuña (Sevilla), Juan Foyth (Villarreal), Lisandro Martínez (Manchester United), Nahuel Molina (Atlético Madrid), Gonzalo Montiel (Sevilla), Nicolás Otamendi (Benfica), Germán Pezzella (Real Betis), Cristian Romero (Tottenham), Nicolás Tagliafico (Lyon)
MIDFIELDERS: Rodrigo De Paul (Atlético Madrid), Enzo Fernández (Benfica), Alejandro Gómez (Sevilla), Alexis Mac Allister (Brighton), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Leandro Paredes (Juventus), Guido Rodriguez (Real Betis)
FORWARDS: Thiago Almada (Atlanta United), Julián Álvarez (Manchester City), Ángel Correa (Atlético Madrid), Paulo Dybala (Roma), Ángel Di María (Juventus), Lautaro Martínez (Inter Milan), Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
GOALKEEPERS: Andrew Redmayne (Sydney FC), Mat Ryan (Copenhagen), Danny Vukovic (Central Coast Mariners)
DEFENDERS: Nathaniel Atkinson (Heart of Midlothian), Aziz Behich (Dundee United), Miloš Degenek (Columbus Crew), Thomas Deng (Albirex Niigata), Fran Karačić (Brescia), Joel King (Odense Boldklub), Kye Rowles (Heart of Midlothian), Harry Souttar (Stoke City), Bailey Wright (Sunderland)
MIDFIELDERS: Keanu Baccus (St Mirren), Cameron Devlin (Heart of Midlothian), Ajdin Hrustic (Hellas Verona), Jackson Irvine (St. Pauli), Riley McGree (Middlesbrough), Aaron Mooy (Celtic)