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SPORTS | 04-12-2022 18:40

Suspense and tension as Albiceleste advance past Australia

Argentina had everything to lose on Saturday against Australia, but Messi and his team-mates did enough to pass that hurdle and claim their place in the last-eight of Qatar 2022.

In an ideal world, Saturday's last-16 game would have been a comfortable amble to the finishing line, with a scoreline that reflected Argentina's dominance over the 90 minutes and clear superiority over a dogged yet outmatched Australia team.

But this is the World Cup, and we know well by now that the only way forward for the Albiceleste is in the company of a healthy dose of suspense and tension. No matter: the adventure rolls on in Qatar, with Lionel Messi and then Emiliano Martínez taking centre-stage in a 2-1 victory that sets up a quarter-final clash with Netherlands on Friday.

The day's narrative was all set up to revolve around the best player on the planet. Messi finally ended one of football's most absurd statistical anomalies, opening the scoring in the first half to net his maiden World Cup knock-out stage goal in his fifth and, presumably, final crack at the trophy. It was classic Leo: darting in from the right wing to take charge, surrounded by gold-and-green shirts, he somehow released a laser-guided shot which crept just wide of Mat Ryan's flailing glove and into the bottom corner of the net. Beyond the capabilities of all but the finest talents; but for the Paris Saint-Germain ace, almost as routine as it was sublime.

From there Argentina appeared to be coasting to victory, the rarest of occurrences on this stage. A monumental blunder from Ryan after the break allowed Julián Álvarez to notch his second goal at these finals, positioning the young striker as Argentina's second-highest goalscorer after the captain, who now boasts three. Lionel Scaloni's charges proceeded to shut down the game, with their rivals toiling at a comfortable distance from Martínez who was enjoying another relaxed evening between the posts. But one can never drop their guard, not at this most unpredictable of tournaments.

A hopeful effort from distance somehow looped past the Argentina No. 1 by way of a hideous deflection off Enzo Fernández, who held no blame for the freak occurrence and once more shone in the engine room alongside a reborn Rodrigo De Paul and Alexis Mac Allister. No matter, though: all of a sudden, and with no warning whatsoever, Argentina found themselves back in a football match.

The Argentina faithful are ever-braced to suffer through close results, and the last 20 minutes that ran from Australia's goal to the final whistle passed in a barely conscious haze for those in the stands and huddled around screens back home. There were two golden chances squandered by Lautaro Martínez, who desperately needs the shot of confidence only a World Cup goal can supply, and also an unlikely Leo-esque dribble from left-back Aziz Behich, who left the Argentina defence in the dust before Lisandro Martínez flew in to save his team. Then, the pivotal, heart-wrenching moment: teenager Garang Kuol bearing down on the net in injury time, ready to become an instant Australian sporting hero, only to be denied by the immense Dibu.

When the World Cup reaches these final instances there is just one objective: get through to the next round in any manner possible. Argentina had everything to lose on Saturday, taking the field for their fourth game in just 12 days, on less than 72 hours rest, and with the added emotional weight of that draining group phase on their shoulders, against a rival relishing their underdog status and playing their own 'final.' Messi and his team-mates did enough to pass that hurdle and claim their place in the last-eight; now, with six days to regroup and rest their tired legs, the last push begins in earnest for the nation and its expectant fans.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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