It is a routine which has become all-too familiar for Argentina over the last decade and a half. When the team is in trouble, Lionel Messi steps forward to come to the rescue and drag his nation out of a hold. But this is 2022, and even when the superstar has an off-day some more unlikely figures are more than ready to play the hero.
Twelve months ago, Enzo Fernández, Julián Álvarez and Alexis Mac Allister probably could not have imagined the incredible story which is playing out right now in Qatar. Between them the trio has played just 30 times for the Albiceleste, predominantly in friendly matches when coach Lionel Scaloni took the opportunity to try out players on the fringe of his expected World Cup squad. Mac Allister, aged 23, is the eldest of a group whom most hoped at best would be ready to shine when the next tournament came around in 2026.
But come the main event, all three have proven match-winners. Enzo with his brilliant strike to take the Scaloneta out of reach against Mexico, and now Mac Allister and Álvarez in Argentina's crucial 2-0 win over Mexico. Those strikes secured qualification from Group C in first place and set up a Round of 16 clash with Australia. Not even Messi's missed penalty could put a damper on what was a sparkling performance across the pitch, and which confirms the change of mood both in Qatar and among the millions watching Argentina's every move back home following that disastrous start against Saudi Arabia.
Much of the credit belongs to Scaloni. The coach could have rested on his laurels after finally getting those first points on the board on Saturday and picked an unchanged team. Instead, he poked and tweaked, making four alterations in order to best handle what was expected to be a solid, physical and dangerous Poland team.
Fernández, Nahuel Molina, Cristian Romero (now back to his best after a nightmare World Cup debut) and Álvarez were drafted in, with the latter's inclusion over striker Lautaro Martínez the biggest surprise. All performed exceptionally against an admittedly very poor Poland, vindicating the trainer's bravery and vision in spectacular fashion.
Just as he was careful not to panic in the wake of defeat, Scaloni is determined not to get carried away with his side's marked improvement. “We are not favourites at all,” he insisted after the final whistle. “We'd be very mistaken in thinking that after winning today we will be champions. We played a great game and are a tough team to beat. We are the same as ever.”
Argentina certainly have emerged from the group stage with their spirit intact. Streetwise, united, ever-willing to go on the front foot even when cruising to victory at 2-0, those are exactly the virtues which have caused an entire country to fall in love with their national team. Albiceleste shirts crowd the streets of Buenos Aires 24 hours a day – except at kick-off, when even Wednesday mid-afternoon on the usually fatally congested Avenida 9 de Julio downtown one could have heard a pin drop as the city closed for business early. Similar scenes were repeated the length and breadth of the country, which has taken the Scaloneta to its heart in a way which has occurred with precious few teams in recent World Cup memory.
Now, we get to do it all again on Saturday. And just like the last two games the equation is straightforward for Scaloni and his charges: win, or start getting ready for the long trip home. Argentina appear to be thriving under that pressure and the team now knows that even if their ace is not at his usual best they have the tools under pressure to make it through; but just to be safe, a trademark Messi masterclass next time out would be more than welcome nonetheless!