Lionel Messi scored in what was the 1,000th game of his storied career as Argentina beat Australia 2-1 to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
Captaining his national team for the 100th time, Messi ignited this last-16 match midway through the first half, curling home cutely after some neat build-up play – his 789th career goal.
In the second half, Julián Álvarez capitalized on some slack goalkeeping by Australia stopper Mat Ryan to score his second goal of the tournament and extend Argentina’s lead.
Just when it looked like Argentina might run away with proceedings, Craig Goodwin’s deflected strike from outside the box nestled in the bottom corner to set up an exciting finale, but Argentina was able to hold out.
Aziz Behich looked as if he might snatch an unlikely equalizer but Lisandro Martinez’s last-dtich tackle deflected the Australian defender’s shot following a slaloming run past a succession of Argentina defenders.
The victory means Argentina will face the Netherlands on Friday in the quarterfinals, after the Dutch beat the US Men’s National Team 3-1 earlier on Saturday.
Messi’s quest to win that elusive World Cup title had a rocky start at Qatar 2022 – Argentina was stunned by Saudi Arabia in its opening group game – and La Albiceleste barely troubled Australia in the opening half hour.
Many soccer pundits have passed comment on just how much Messi tends to walk in matches these days, but that wasn’t the case when the 35-year-old closed down Behich as he attempted to clear the ball.
Messi and Behich got into a bit of a shoving match and that small act of passion was enough to get the Argentina fans in the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium off their feet and singing again.
Those fans were soon crooning even more loudly when Messi curled a beautiful, left-footed effort past Australian keeper Ryan following a slick Argentina moved.
The goal was Messi’s ninth in World Cups, taking him above Diego Maradona and Guillermo Stabile who have eight apiece. Only Gabriel Batistuta has more for Argentina with 10.
It was the highlight of what was an even first half, with Australia looking organized and never in awe of Argentina.
After the break, Argentina began to turn on the style, though La Albiceleste’s second goal stemmed from hard work and pressing.
After Ryan attempted to control a back-pass, he took a heavy touch to evade the on-rushing Rodrigo De Paul.
Unfortunately for Ryan, Álvarez had joined the press and capitalized on the Australian’s keeper’s error to tap home for his second goal in as many games.
Cue more Messi magic as the 35-year-old jinked and bounced past a succession of Australian players to the delight of the thousands of Argentina fans in attendance.
Argentina was in cruise control, but with just under 15 minutes left, a strike from Australia’s Goodwin looked to be heading safely away from the Argentina goal before it struck Enzo Fernández and flew past Emiliano Martínez.
With Australia pushing for a second goal, Argentina had an opportunities to catch the Socceroos on the break, with Lautaro Martínez missing numerous opportunities to seal the game.
Behich almost scored one of the goals of the tournament as he weaved in between a series of Argentina players before a flying tackle by Manchester United defender Martinez thwarted the Australian at the last moment.
Australia went close one last time, teenager Garang Kuol – making just his third appearance for the Socceroos – almost forcing extra-time but his close range shot was smothered by Argentina keeper Martínez.