Lionel Messi believes Argentina are starting to show “what they stand for” at the World Cup as he helped them shrug off a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia with a win over Mexico on Saturday night.
An ill-tempered game needed someone to lift it and as so often, Messi stepped forward. In his fifth and surely final World Cup, the Paris St Germain superstar set his team on the path to a crucial victory with a well-taken goal in the 64th minute.
Messi was encouraged by what he saw but recognised that the job is not done, with a victory over Poland needed to guarantee a last-16 place.
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“We didn’t expect [the defeat to Saudi Arabia], and today felt very long,” Messi said via an interpreter.
“We felt eager to turn the situation around. Luckily we won and that was a weight off our shoulders, and we have the peace of mind that it is all down to us again.
“I think the first half was difficult due to the situation and our need to win, we couldn’t find spaces, we weren’t moving the ball from side to side, but that was normal given our situation.
“In the second half we started playing our game, and started doing what we stand for. Long possession, finding space between the lines, then the goal changed the game.”
Lusail Stadium was rocking with a sense of occasion, even if for the most part the quality of football on the pitch was lacking.
The official attendance of 88,966 was the highest in a World Cup finals match since the 1994 final in the United States between Brazil and Italy, when 94,194 packed into the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
Unlike that match 28 years ago, at least this one featured two excellent goals. The first was vintage Messi – the 35-year-old finding a rare pocket of space just outside the area and picking his spot low to Guillermo Ochoa’s left.
Enzo Fernandez curled home the second with three minutes to go to kill off the Mexican challenge, but coach Lionel Scaloni said it was vital his team dealt in a balanced way with the highs and lows they had experienced so far.
“The feeling you are playing something more than a football match, I don’t share this opinion,” Scaloni said.
“I do think the feeling of joy is there. Maybe you think I am crazy. We will enjoy it in the dressing room tonight, but tomorrow, that’s it, we start again.
“It was the same when we won the Copa America – the happiness lasts only 10 minutes. We need to find that emotional balance when we win, and when we lose.”
Mexico coach Gerardo Martino knows all about Messi, who hails from the same city of Rosario and is a player he has coached for Barcelona and Argentina.
“When Messi gets the ball, in 30 seconds he can be very harmful,” Martino said.
When asked if he felt Mexico had afforded Messi too much space throughout, Martino replied: “I don’t see it that way. I saw there was space when he scored – we made a mistake.
“I don’t think during the match he found many spaces in the last third, but I do understand that Argentina’s goals can change the perspective of what has happened over the 90 minutes.”
The result leaves Mexico needing to beat Saudi Arabia to stand any chance of extending their run of reaching the last 16 to an eighth consecutive tournament.
“As long as there is a chance we need to try,” Martino said.
“We held our heads high to face a huge opponent in Argentina and I’m sure we will play the same way and we will break our backs in the next game.”