Second-half goals from Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez helped Argentina limp towards a 2-0 victory against Mexico on Saturday night.
The Lusail Iconic Stadium will be the venue for the World Cup final but it served as the setting for what Lautaro Martinez described as the first of “two finals” for Argentina after the shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opener.
Very much like a final, it was a desperately cagey contest pockmarked by niggling fouls, spiky challenges and few chances.
Argentina began the game hampered by the pressure of the circumstances and – more pertinently – Mexico’s energetic start, forcing the Copa America champions into aimless punts clear.
Lionel Scaloni gave his team a lofty buildup ahead of the contest, pledging: “We will give everything, every last bead of sweat, to turn this around.” Martinez went one step further: “We will break our backs for Argentina.”
Yet, the opening hour was painfully listless as Argentina seemed to fret over the possibility of losing rather than the necessity to win.
Messi had been well-muzzled by Mexico’s hoard of dogged midfielders, forcing Argentina’s skipper to drop deep into his own half in search of a whisper of space for most of the match. ‘Most’ being the operative word.
As his former manager at international and club level, Mexico boss Gerardo Martino was well aware of Messi’s propensity to flicker into life. “Sometimes even without being on top of your game for 90 minutes, in five minutes everything can happen,” he prophetically warned.
Hector Herrera was caught on his heels as Angel Di Maria fired the ball across the edge of the box. Taming a fiercely struck pass with one touch, Messi swatted a low, fizzing effort into the bottom corner with his second, nestling it in the ratonera – the mouse nest, as they say in Argentina.
What they will be saying back in Buenos Aires and beyond will invariably be some form of thanks to their skipper.
Fernandez sealed three points which keeps Argentina’s future in their own hands in the 87th minute, bending a sumptuous effort into the top corner as Mexico completely switched off from a short corner. But this was Messi’s night. Victory ensures there may be more of those to come this winter. Argentina will certainly hope so. -90minutes.com