Argentina beat Australia 2-1 in the Round of 16 of the football World Cup in Qatar, setting up a quarter-final showdown against the Netherlands.
Lionel Messi, playing in his 1000th game, opened the scoring in the 35th minute, one of few highlights of a lethargic first half at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium on Saturday. It was Messi’s ninth World Cup career goal, one more than late Argentina legend Diego Maradona’s record.
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A second goal for Argentina followed just before the hour mark, courtesy of Julian Alvarez, after a notable lapse by Australia’s defence.
The Socceroos, who played a compact game, scored a 77th-minute consolation goal when Craig Goodwin’s shot deflected into the net off Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez.
Further efforts in both boxes ramped up the tension in the dying minutes. Amid late pressure from Australia, there was a chance in the final seconds for Garang Kuol to send the game to extra time, but his shot was smothered by Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
For Australia’s squad of unheralded players, it proved to be a match too far at a World Cup in which the team has exceeded expectations by reaching the knockout stage for only the second time. Australia also lost in the last 16 in 2006, to eventual champions Italy.
As for Messi, he now has 789 goals in a career that might yet reach its peak on December 18 by winning football’s biggest trophy in his fifth, and likely last, World Cup.
The dream is still alive for the seven-time world player of the year and the tens of thousands of Argentina fans who dominated the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, massively outnumbering the small pockets of green-and-gold Australia supporters, and making it feel like a match in Buenos Aires or Rosario.
“Amazing,” Argentina fan Mateo Gomez told Al Jazeera at the stadium after the end of the match. “The best part was Messi scoring. We wanted him to score more goals; he could have scored a hat-trick tonight.
“I feel very happy. Now it is time to celebrate,” Gomez said, before breaking into a chant with a friend.
On the other end, there was disappointment among Australia fans – but also pride.
“The team did well. You couldn’t have asked for more from our players, they gave everything,” Emanuel Sarkhosh, who travelled from Sydney for the game, told Al Jazeera.
“It was a good game. It wasn’t our day, that’s football. The players did better than we expected.”
Earlier, the Argentina fans bounced, swayed and twirled their scarves in joyous celebration after Messi gave Argentina the lead. He had sent a pass inside to the edge of the area and kept running, eventually receiving a layoff from Nicolas Otamendi to take one touch and stroke his finish through the long legs of Australia defender Harry Souttar, the tallest outfield player at the World Cup.
And when Alvarez added the second, it looked like Argentina was going to cruise to victory. Messi started putting on a show and one 40m dribble wowed the crowd as he slalomed past three defenders and was tackled just as he was about to shoot.
This was no walkover, though, with Australia mounting a stirring fightback in the final 20 minutes, even putting Souttar up front in stoppage time for his aerial threat.
The widely predicted result sets up a salivating quarter-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday.
They are teams with history.
The pair last met in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup – a 0-0 draw won on penalties 4-2 by Argentina. They drew when playing in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup, while the Netherlands knocked out Argentina in the quarter-finals of the 1998 World Cup.
Argentina beat the Netherlands 3-1 in the final of the 1978 World Cup; revenge for the Netherlands’ 4-0 demolition of Argentina in the 1974 World Cup.
Hamza Mohamed contributed reporting from Ahmad bin Ali Stadium