AL RAYYAN, Qatar — For all of his accomplishments, and there are many, there was one thing Lionel Messi had never done at the World Cup: score a goal in an elimination game.
Now that he has done so — his first-half shot helped carry Argentina to a 2-1 victory over Australia on Saturday night — he still has a chance at another first: Messi has never lifted the World Cup trophy.
A championship, of course, is still a ways away. But squint your eyes as Messi darted through the Australian defense at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday night and it still seems possible. For 90 minutes, Messi, 35, looked like the Messi who made his World Cup debut at 18 and has torn through club opponents across Europe for decades.
With the win, Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals, where it will face the Netherlands on Friday. A potential matchup with Brazil looms after that, and maybe one with France or Spain or England if Argentina (along with one of those other teams) can reach the final.
Messi hopes his last act on the World Cup stage comes after he clears several more immediate hurdles.
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“I’m very happy for taking another step forward and achieving another objective. It was a very physical and difficult match,” Messi said, then alluding to the fact that Argentina’s final group stage game was three days before. “We had played recently and didn’t have much time to rest up. We were a little concerned about that.”
So much about this era of Argentina’s World Cup history has revolved around Messi, the generational forward who, on Saturday, made his 1,000th appearance for club and country. Even with so much mileage on his legs, his skill still shined through against Australia.
In the first half, Messi and Argentina quietly probed the Australian defense, controlling possession of the ball and looking for any crease. With the guile and shiftiness of Messi, who roams freely around the field, that opening can come at any moment — and through any defender.
Toward the end of the first half, Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister flicked a pass to Nicolás Otamendi in the penalty area. In a slick give-and-go, Otamendi astutely stopped and left the ball to Messi, who took one dribble and fired a shot through the legs of an Australian defender and into the lower left corner of the net. And just like that, the massive pressure facing Argentina and Messi in Qatar, a tournament that began with a stunning loss to Saudi Arabia, felt as if it had lifted.
To celebrate the goal, Messi threw out his arms and raced over to a corner of the field where he was engulfed by teammates in a circle. The stands, largely filled with the blue and white stripes of Argentina jerseys, bounced up and down. It was the ninth goal in 23 World Cup games for Messi — who has appeared in every edition of the tournament since 2006 — but his first goal in a knockout-round game.
“Impressive,” forward Julián Álvarez said in Spanish of Messi. “Not just the goal but his performance during the entire game and the last minutes were important, too. It doesn’t surprise us. We know Leo and we’ll always do our best to support him.”
Even when Messi didn’t score — his scampering run through the Australian defense in the 65th minute ended in a corner kick, and more cheers — fans in the stands bowed to him. After the game, Messi commended the large number of Argentine fans who had traveled to Qatar and loudly supported him and the team.
“There is this bond that we have, this union that we have, that is beautiful,” he said, adding later, “It’s unbelievable how they live every single match, their passion, their energy and their joy. We’re very thankful.”
But if Argentina is to win the World Cup and bring those fans further delight, Messi cannot do it all alone. And in the 57th minute, he got a taste of the kind of help he will need. When Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan paused too long in clearing a ball in front of his goal while under pressure from two Argentine players, Álvarez stabbed the loose ball free, turned and slotted it into the empty net.
The second goal proved critical: In the 77th minute, Australia forward Craig Goodwin fired a left-footed shot from outside the box that deflected off midfielder Enzo Fernández and into the goal.
Desperate to tie the game and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history, Australia turned up its attack. In the 81st minute, Aziz Behich wove through Argentina’s players but had his close-range shot blocked. In injury time, Australian forward Garang Kuol freed himself for an open shot, only to have it saved by Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. His relieved teammates piled on top of him to celebrate, and up the field Messi was relieved.
“That’s the World Cup for you,” he said. “These matches are always difficult, but we got the win.” And with it, Argentina and Messi moved one step closer toward their goal.