Heroic Lionel Messi saves Argentina's World Cup as Mexico's tactical tweaking falls short

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LUSAIL, Qatar -- Goals from Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez saved Argentina from elimination in the World Cup and defeated Mexico 2-0 on Saturday in Group C.

In front of 88,966 fans at Lusail Stadium, the match was at first a nervy one with plenty of fouls but a lack of opportunities from either side. Then, in the second half, Messi opened up the score sheet with an inch-perfect opportunity in the 64th minute that put the South Americans up 1-0.

In the 87th minute, Fernandez sealed the 2-0 result with a beautiful shot that sneaked past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.

JUMP TO: Player ratings | Best/worst performers | Highlights and notable moments | Postmatch quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures

Rapid reaction

1. Argentina bounce back with first win to keep World Cup hopes alive

After a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their first match of the group stage, Argentina could not lose against Mexico and responded with a significant result.

Initially running into hurdles with El Tri's defensive game plan through a 5-3-2 formation, Messi eventually pounced on a shot in the second half that set the Lusail Stadium crowd into a frenzy. El Tri appeared rattled after the goal, leaving an inevitable chance later on for Fernandez to make it 2-0 in the dying moments.

The result is much more than just the three points gained. Had Argentina lost, the title contenders would have earned a shocking early exit from the World Cup in the group stage. Most importantly, Messi would have also gone home empty-handed after previously noting that this would be his last World Cup.

For now, the hopes of Argentina's sporting nation live on.

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- Mexico's fans in Qatar in full force despite squad's low profile

2. Martino's tactical experiment for Mexico falls short

Mexico manager Tata Martino raised a few eyebrows when he decided to ditch his usual 4-3-3 formation and instead go with a 5-3-2 against Argentina.

The strategy of putting more numbers in defense seemed to at first frustrate La Albiceleste, who needed just a bit of time to figure it out. By the second half, however, Argentina put Mexico on the ropes with goals from Messi and Fernandez, leaving El Tri with a more worrisome path to the knockout round.

Now, even if Mexico defeats Saudi Arabia in the final game of the group stage, Martino and his men will also need to hope that the score of the Poland-Argentina works in their favor.

Had El Tri earned just a draw vs. Argentina on Saturday, they would have then needed only three points against Saudi Arabia, and not needed to rely on the other result.

3. After quiet start, Messi emerges a hero

Where is Messi? That was the question many were asking coming into Saturday's game and even during the first half -- but he was there at the Lusail Stadium, scoring one of the most important goals for Argentina so far in the 2022 World Cup.

Playing with the eagerness of and drive of someone who didn't want his swan song to end in the group stage, the superstar was brilliant with his movement and goal in the second half. Then minutes before the end of regulation time, No. 10 would emerge once again with an assist for Fernandez.

Messi and his team still have plenty of work to do in the group stage, but it'll be a huge relief from supporters to see him scoring again and providing an assist in Qatar.

Player ratings

Mexico: Guillermo Ochoa 5, Kevin Alvarez 6, Nestor Araujo 5, Cesar Montes 6, Hector Moreno 5, Jesus Gallardo 5, Hector Herrera 6, Andres Guardado 7, Luis Chavez 6, Hirving Lozano 6, Alexis Vega 6

Subs: Erick Gutierrez 6, Raul Jimenez 6, Uriel Antuna 6, Roberto Alvarado 5

Argentina: Emiliano Martinez 7, Gonzalo Montiel 6, Nicolas Otamendi 7, Lisandro Martinez 7, Marcos Acuna 7, Rodrigo de Paul 6, Guido Rodriguez 7, Angel Di Maria 7, Lionel Messi 9, Alexis Mac Allister 7, Lautaro Martinez 6

Subs: Enzo Fernandez 8, Julian Alvarez 7, Nahuel Molina 7, Cristian Romero 7, Exequiel Palacios 6

Best and worst performers

BEST: Lionel Messi, Argentina

Goal, assist and the deserved winner of the Man of the Match: The global superstar is the reason Argentina are still fighting for a spot in the knockout round.

WORST: Jesus Gallardo, Mexico

The wing-back looked overwhelmed when Argentina roamed onto his area of the defense and often had no issues making their way past him. Going forward, he didn't provide much.

Highlights and notable moments

There were not any highlights or notable moments in the first half.

Don't believe us? There were only three shots total (one for Argentina, two for Mexico) and the expected goals, or xG, was the lowest in a half at the 2022 World Cup yet. Mexico registered only a 0.07 xG and Argentina did even worse with 0.05.

The second half seemed to be plodding along in the same manner until, out of seemingly nowhere, Lionel Messi found the back of the net for Argentina.

We cannot stress enough how little was happening for the other side in the attack, and how Messi just turned and fired in a split second from well outside the box and somehow managed to place it perfectly. That was the goal that saved Argentina's World Cup.

With Argentina up 1-0, the game state changed -- everything opened up and Argentina were suddenly on the front foot.

Enzo Fernandez dashed any hopes for Mexico of a comeback with a sensational curling strike from the inside corner of the box. It was a beauty to put Argentina up 2-0.

After the match: What the players and managers said

Argentina's Lionel Messi on the result: "After the goal, we became again who we are. So, it's great -- we needed this result, we needed this euphoria in this game that we had to win."

Messi on the game changing: "... Everything came down to two single plays. We knew that today we had to win, that another World Cup started for us and we knew what to do. We cannot let our guard down now."

Messi on rumors he was injured: "I don't know why there were so many things said about it. The other day everyone was talking about my ankle and I did not have anything wrong with it. But then in the last minute [against Saudi Arabia], I rolled it over. It seemed like it was on purpose. I said all week that I didn't have anything wrong with it and then in final minute I twisted it. But it is fine. I was able to train normally afterward right along with the team and I did not train alone at any moment."

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)

  • Messi has scored 13 goals for Argentina in 2022, his most ever in a calendar year. (Next best: 12 goals in 2012.)

  • Messi has scored in six straight for Argentina, tying his longest scoring streak for the Albiceleste (from November 2011 to September 2012).

  • At 21 years and 313 days old, Fernandez is the youngest player to score for Argentina at the World Cup since Messi in 2006 vs. Serbia and Montenegro (18 years and 358 days old).

  • The last time Mexico had one or fewer points after two World Cup group stage games was in 1978, when Mexico lost all three games in the group.

  • Mexico is now scoreless in four straight World Cup games for the first time El Tri's history, starting at the previous World Cup. The only time Mexico has gone scoreless in each of its first two group stage games in a World Cup was 1962.

Up next

Mexico: One game remains in Group C for El Tri, and they will face Saudi Arabia on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, which will determine if Mexico advances to the knockout round or not. El quinto partido (a coveted, long-awaited fifth game in the quarterfinals) hangs in the balance -- they need to reach el cuarto (the fourth match) first.

Argentina: Likewise, La Albiceleste finish up Group C against Poland on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. Now that they didn't lose to Mexico, a shot at the knockout round is still in play for Argentina.