Alexis Mac Allister began the club season with an own goal at Old Trafford but has been quite the penalty taker for Brighton. For Argentina, that might not be an option even after Wednesday but if there ever was a debt Mac Allister had to repay to Lionel Messi, he couldn’t have chosen a more opportune moment.
Mac Allister is of Irish and Scottish descent and had, in an interview to The Athletic, said he was called ‘Colo’ or ginger in Spanish by his Argentina teammates. He didn’t like it and Messi put a stop to that, Mac Allister said. On a night when Stadium 974 looked like La Bombonera, more Buenos Aires than Doha, the Argentina midfielder ensured Messi’s missed penalty, a debatable call from Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, wouldn’t be aligned with those of Zico or Roberto Baggio as one of the World Cup’s costliest misses.
Julian Alavez ensured it would be a footnote in the context of the group stage games of the 2022 edition with a strike reminiscent of the Messi of yore. Argentina topped Group C and will meet Australia in the round of 16. Poland, who were second by virtue of a better goal difference than Mexico, will play France.
Alvarez’s goal in the 67th minute and that of Mac Allister 68 seconds into the second half ensured that the shock loss to Saudi Arabia if recalled would be when comparisons are made with Argentina’s run in 1990. There too Argentina had lost the opening game but scraped through to the final where they were felled by an Andreas Brehme penalty.
So dominant were Argentina that Robert Lewandowski could have been in the stands among the sliver of Poland supporters. Poland defended with 10 in front of Wojciech Szczesny’s goal and still had to thank the goalkeeper for a scoreless first half and the scoreline staying 0-2 in the end. His night began with a save off Messi at his near post, the Argentine almost finding a sliver of space between the keeper and the framework. It continued through an Angel di Maria corner-kick that would have gone in but for Szczesny’s intervention before the contentious penalty.
Szczesny had kept out an effort from Alvarez but the ball was hooked back to Messi who leapt and looked to have connected before the Poland goalkeeper’s palm landed on his face. Among the few things Messi is not known for is his heading though he has a goal in the Champions League final that way. Messi never looked like he was in control of the header but Makkelie saw the replay and decided it was an unfair challenge.
The 39th minute penalty came at the right height for Szczesny who flew to his left and struck out a right hand. Argentina had gone into the game needing to win and Messi had missed a penalty. But this is an Argentina so imperious in attack that they still managed a convincing victory with neither a goal nor assist from their highest goalscorer.
Messi could have still got both but Alvarez banged into the side-netting after a strong run in the 73rd minute. By then, he had twice driven down the middle and, in the 72nd minute, failed to beat Szczesny in a one-on-one situation. Mac Allister too could have got a brace, Poland were finding his runs into the front third difficult to track, but for Szczesny. There was more. Lautaro Martinez, who had lost his place in the starting line-up to Alvarez, dragged his shot wide and Nicolas Tagliafico’s attempt was kept out of goal by Jakub Kiwior. It was a save that kept Poland in the competition.