Nothing this precious ever came easy. Argentina qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a performance that mixed two parts ecstasy with one part agony. They secured a two-goal lead through Lionel Messi and Julián Álvarez, played some of their most unfettered and spellbinding football of the tournament, peppered the Australian goal with shots during a gripping second half.
And yet, did you expect Australia to sit down and accept their fate? This Australia, with its SPFL stalwarts, its honest journeymen? Australia took the hard road to Qatar and they took the hard road out of it, outgunned but never outrun, even burgling a late consolation goal and threatening an almighty shock. They may not be stuffed with household names. They may have been given the run-around by the world’s greatest player for an hour. But they left every piece of themselves on that pitch, and somehow you sense the game Down Under will never be quite the same.
For half an hour it looked as though Australia might just succeed in dragging Argentina down to their level. They may have been outnumbered in the stands, where the armies of Albiceleste wrapped a tight tourniquet of noise around the pitch and barely stopped squeezing. But on the pitch it was the gold shirts who initially looked busier, buzzier, more numerous. They covered more ground, won most of the second balls, counterattacked with decent numbers.
Argentina, by contrast, looked a little sleepy, having come through a draining game against Poland just three nights earlier. Though they kept the ball well, the urgency and the craft and the speculative runs weren’t quite there. Their press was surprisingly light: not so much a press, indeed, as a series of polite inquiries. Keanu Baccus, of St Mirren, was having a good game in the Australia midfield.
Meanwhile, Messi whirled and twirled away. He probed the channels, pottered from wing to wing, dived deep into the green waters of midfield. He was fouled by Keanu Baccus, of St Mirren. He saw a couple of passes cut out. It was, in other words, a quiet sort of game for the world’s greatest player. At which point Aziz Behich, of Dundee United, did something that, when it comes to the debrief, he might just regret.
It was 10 minutes before half-time and Messi was tussling for a ball near the right touchline. Behich, of Dundee United, barged him off the ball, grabbed a piece of his shirt, gave Messi a sharp Melburnian sledge whose contents will sadly be lost to history. Messi’s angry reaction was the first real human moment we had seen from him all night.
Maybe it meant something. Maybe it meant nothing. All we know that a few seconds later, Messi collected the ball on the right wing, knocked the ball to Alexis Mac Allister 30 yards out, and charged into the penalty area. With a speed and conviction we have not always seen from him this tournament, he picked up Mac Allister’s pass via the touch of Nicolas Otamendi and slid the ball into the bottom corner the way he has done several hundred times before, but never through the legs of Harry Souttar, of Stoke City. It was his first kick in the penalty area all game.
That was the cue for Lionel Scaloni to make a change. In the second half he brought on Lisandro Martinez and switched to a back three. Had he been burned by the defeat to Saudi Arabia? Either way, it gave Argentina a width and verticality that suited them, with Australia beginning to push forward. They were playing with more energy now, more brio and swagger. Messi made a couple of brisk runs that evoked his electrifying peak. And so as Mat Ryan, of Copenhagen, received a routine back pass, Rodrigo de Paul sprinted towards him, murderously closing down his angles.
Ryan tried to dribble his way out of trouble. It was a moment of pure impulse, the sort of act where you can already hear the whoops of acclaim from the crowd, perhaps even glimpse your fleeting moment of viral fame. Unfortunately, in ducking clear of de Paul, he forgot that Alvarez was lurking behind him. Alvarez nicked the ball. Alvarez finished beautifully with his momentum taking him away from goal. Ryan blinked blankly. He could hear the whoops of acclaim. He could glimpse the viral notoriety. But this wasn’t the way he had planned it.
But things didn’t quite go the way Argentina planned them, either. Scaloni wheeled out his substitutes, the drummers in the Argentina end paced them home and thoughts began to turn to the quarter-final against the Netherlands. It was at this point that Craig Goodwin, of Adelaide, took a wild shot from 30 yards. Enzo Fernandez got a deflection on it. And somehow a second later the ball was looping into the top corner, with Emi Martinez totally flummoxed.
For a few minutes Australia’s players shook with belief, their fans with disbelief. They would have their moments too: Behich of Dundee United with the sort of brilliant mazy dribble they are well used to at Tannadice Park, Lisandro Martinez with a miraculous block. In the dying seconds of injury time Garang Kuol found himself alone with Emi Martinez, who saved his shot with a flying left hand. Argentina breathed again, and now they dream again.