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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 26-11-2022 22:13

Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernández show the way as Argentina deliver requisite dose of suffering

Lionel Messi has soared closer to the heavens than any other player of his generation, and he swooped just in time to extricate his nation from possible World Cup disaster and keep their hopes in Qatar alive and kicking.

Just when it appeared there was no way out of the labyrinth, up stepped Argentina's own Icarus. Lionel Messi has soared closer to the heavens than any other player of his generation, and he swooped just in time to extricate his nation from possible World Cup disaster and keep their hopes in Qatar alive and kicking.

It was another torrid afternoon for the Albiceleste, who teetered on the edge of disaster for more than an hour. Still apparently feeling the after-effects of that shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, the team once more looked nervous and disjointed, misplacing pass after pass in the face of a determined Mexico who had clearly learned the lesson from Tuesday's upset and pressured incessantly and to great effect.

Those mistakes – and an exhausting number of fouls from both sides but in particular from the men in green – made for a rather turgid spectacle, and Argentina threatened to go down in a sea of frustration and false starts. The team could just not get going, or show any hint of the rhythm and cohesion which has made them such a force to be reckoned with over the last three years, and while Mexico retreated after the half-time break there was still precious little space for Lionel Scaloni's men to create anything which put in danger the net guarded by the venerable old man of the Tricolor side, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

Argentina needed inspiration from somewhere, anywhere, and fortunately their hero proved equal. Having kept out Roberto Lewandowski's penalty against Poland in the first match Ochoa could not stop Leo, as a laser-guided effort from just outside the box flew past his outstretched arm and into the net. Joy for Argentina, but more than that sheer relief and release of tension, as witnessed by assistant Pablo Aimar who burst into tears and was inconsolable as the rest of the Albiceleste squad celebrated the breakthrough.

Mexico appeared to have been shattered by that knockout punch, and despite a few half-hearted attempts to rally were marshalled by a solid backline effort, with the ever-surprising Nicolás Otamendi taking full command of the situation. And there was still time for a final blow: substitute Enzo Fernández, whose stunning form going into this World Cup and bewildering multi-functionality mean he really should have started both games to date, probably ensured his spot for the rest of the tournament with another stunning strike to kill the match off as a content late on.

Just how long the rest of the tournament might last is now firmly in Argentina's hands. It is clear enough that playing as they did on Tuesday, or in the first half against Mexico, their campaign will end sooner rather than later. But if the relatively inexperienced squad – 12 of the 17 players used on Saturday are involved in their first World Cup – can tame their anxiety and keep their heads, the talent and understanding is there to defeat Poland, seal first place in Group C and march onwards towards the knockout phase.

Nobody said it was going to be easy in Qatar, after all, and it would not be an Argentina World Cup campaign without the requisite dose of suffering; but where there is a Messi, or even an Enzo, there might just be a way through the twist and turns of this competition.

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) Where there is a L, or even an Enzo, there might just be a way through the twist and turns of this competition.
Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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