Lionel Messi produced a moment of magic to drag Argentina to a 2-0 win over Mexico, in what was a largely another uninspiring performance from one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Messi broke the deadlock just after the hour mark, before substitute Enzo Fernandez scored a sublime late second, going some way to make up for their humiliation at the hands of Saudi Arabia last Tuesday.
The stage was set for a colossal clash, Central vs South America, that could have had seismic repercussions for not only this world cup but footballing folklore for generations.
Argentina had not exited a World Cup at the group stage since 2002, yet a defeat in the Lusail Iconic Stadium would have sealed their fate and brought to an end the turbulent arc of Lionel Messi in the pale blue stripes of La Albiceleste.
Whether it was the pressure cooker environment, or the suffocating knowledge that this World Cup was ‘for Messi’, Argentina couldn’t find any kind of rhythm to their play in the first half. Every dead end, run down and barely a shot troubled Guillermo Ochoa in the Mexican goal.
Ten minutes into the second half and Argentina won a free kick on the edge of the area, following a rash foul from Erick Guttierrez. Messi Territory. The number 1o stepped up, only to see his effort sail into the stands. In years gone by there would be little doubt it would’ve nestled into the top corner.
The fact there was no exhaustive sigh of relief in the stands, proof of the great man’s seemingly dwindling superpowers.
The supporting cast entered and exited the stage with Lautaro Martinez replaced by Julian Alvarez, both sublime interchangeable talent but the El Tri goal remained unscathed.
The, just over the hour mark, the captain produced a moment of ‘vintage Messi’ to send the travelling fans into delirium. Angel Di Maria slipped a low ball across the park, where the PSG forward cushioned the pass with his first touch before rifling a shot, with millimetre precision, into the bottom corner.
Whilst Messi’s finish was one we have seen scores of times before, it was a new name that added Argentina’s second.
Enzo Fernandez, forged in Buenos Aires with River Plate, now plying his trade with Benfica, produced a moment of sensational quality with three minutes left to seal the points.
The 21-year-old danced his way into the penalty box, before unleashing a wicked drive into the far corner to condemn the Mexicans to one point from their opening two games.
The midfielder’s late effort may prove that the ensemble can play a major role for this Argentina team, but it was still their leading man who stole the show.