Breathe hard. Breathe easy. Lionel Messi, and with him Argentina, lives one more match in the World Cup. But only after he made his fans endure a riot of emotions. Messi arguably enjoyed his best night of the tournament, he scaled the magical heights of career in bursts, but for the penalty he missed in the second half.
A tragic haze descended over the 974 stadium when he failed to convert the penalty, scuffing it feebly to the diving hands of Wojciech Szczesny. The latter would have felt a sense of poetic justice because the offence for the spot kick was soft, to put it softly.
The Poland keeper was deemed to have brushed Messi’s forehead in a scramble, though Messi was not in control of the ball. But he made up for it with a precise leap to his left-side to thwart the ball. Messi looked ghastly. He fell onto the ground with cupped palms, covering his head in shame, pleading for forgiveness to his country.
He has missed just four penalties in the entirety of his Argentina career. And just 27 for his clubs. Among Messi fans, an odd sense of dread began to simmer. Was it not going to be his night? Is his end of his World Cup journey written on the stars above?
For the next six minutes, until half-time Argentina aimlessly drifted, gradually resigning to the fate that Messi had missed the penalty. When the whistle blew, after two more minutes of agonising stoppage time, Messi staggered back into the dressing room with a weary body and wearier mind.
But whatever transpired in the change-room during the half-time, Argentina came out bounding, burying the memories of the penalty, lifting themselves and producing their best spell of football since the first half against Saudi Arabia.
Barely sixty seconds had passed in the second half when Nahuel Molina brilliantly cut back a ball to Alexis Mac Allister, whose boots threw the kitchen sink at the ball. The connection was weak, the ball wobbled, but Szczesny was wrong-footed and even his last-gasp leap could not save the ball from crashing onto the nets.
Messi breathed a sigh of relief. His error would go unpunished. He could pardon himself. His country could pardon him. Imagine the cross he has to bear for his entire life had Argentina lost this match.
As soon as he scored the goal, Mac Allister searched for Messi, as though the goal was dedicated to him, and hugged him warmly. Messi clenched his fist and gestured at the crowd to cheer louder.
Rarely would you have seen Messi so animated. Then he knows that every match could be his last one. And he wants to live every moment of his last World Cup.
The goal liberated Messi. In the next 20 minutes, culminating in the second goal, Messi rolled back his peak Barca years, making his markers run around in circles, creating chances, enjoying himself with the enthusiasm of a debutant.
A second goal looked inevitable, though it did not arrive from Messi’s boot. Instead, Julian Alvarez pelted in a stunner to put the match in bed for all practical purposes.
His first touch, off a sharp drive from Enzo Fernandez was immaculate. He then swivelled swiftly in a languid hip-shift and bulleted the ball to the top corner. The match was almost put to bed and Argentina then clinically shut shop and snuffed out the Lewandowski-led forays.
The Polish striker was immense, but it was not his day, and the tragic stars flickered over his head, not that of Messi. But like Messi, he too would live another day in the World Cup, as they qualified at the expense of Mexico, who beat Saudi Arabia 2-1, but had conceded one goal too many.
For the Poles, the last few minutes was all about not shipping in another and they fiercely guarded the goalmouth. They almost let one in, at the 93rd minute, when Nicolas Tagliafico slipped the ball over Szczesny, but Jakob Kiwior made a goal-like clearance to keep Poland’s knockout hopes alive. And how crucial the save turned out to be.
Three more minutes later, the final whistle blew, erupting raucous cries of joy in the stadium, the arena exploding in an aural haemorrhage, Messi knelt on the ground and thanked the heavens. He rose and waved a thumbs up to the Argentina supporters.
The match began openly with Robert Lewandowski threatening the goal a couple of times while Messi stung the palms of Szczesny in an identical fashion as he had score against Mexico. Angel di Maria was again the provider but this time Messi didn’t find the placement. The stadium skipped a beat.
How close he was to make the stadium erupt in delight. They waited, and waited, soaking every moment and movement of Messi.
Minutes before that, di Maria fizzed a half-volley that seemed destined to settle into the top corner, only for the intervention of Messi’s frame. A moment of anticlimax. Messi smiled apologetically. But the signs were positive, Messi was a flowing textbook of fluency, finding pockets of space in the Polish territory.
There was a refreshing openness about the match, as Poland were content in not just rearguarding. But gradually Poland began to dig in, on the face of Argentina’s repeated onslaught that saw both di Maria and Julian Alvarez coming close to scoring.
The applause was thunderous when Messi glided out in the all-blue stripes of Argentina. Everyone stood up and clapped, for this could be the last time they could see him in a World Cup, though deep inside they would have been passionately praying that Argentina beats Poland and reaches the last time. So that, they could behold the wonder that Messi is. Emotions poured in as he acknowledged the crowd.
His team had rung in three changes after the scrapheap that was the Mexico game. The most significant was Julian Alvarez replacing Lautaro Martinez, one of Lionel Scaloni’s most trusted lieutenants in the 36-game unbeaten. But the virtues they bring are similar. A fit-again Molina came for Montiel while Enzo Fernandez was rewarded for his curler against Mexico, instead of the rusty Guido Rodriquez.
Both Alvarez and Fernandez were to play key roles in setting up the match. But whatever happens, whoever scored, Messi remained the central protagonist. It would have been a night that could have ended tragically for him, but it was not to be. Messi lives one more night in the World Cup. Breathe hard, breathe easy.