MESSI MAGIC He left it until his 1,000th game – but boy was it worth the wait.
Lionel Messi had gone seven games, 12 hours and 23 shots without scoring for Argentina in the World Cup knockouts.
Lionel Messi scored his third goal of the 2022 World Cup to give Argentina the lead
It was the first real moment of quality in the game and Messi made it count
The Argentina players immediately sprinted over to mob Messi
It was the ninth World Cup goal of Messi’s career
Julian Alvarez pinched the ball from Australia keeper Mat Ryan
The Man City man then provided the simple finish two extend Argentina’s lead
Match winners Messi and Alvarez celebrating Argentina’s second goal of the game
Christ, even Matthew Upson managed one!
The maestro has always had it thrown at him back home that he has never stepped up on the biggest stage.
In 2018, the late great Diego Maradona blasted: “We shouldn’t deify Messi any longer. Messi is Messi when he plays for Barcelona, and he’s another Messi with Argentina.”
Maybe there has been truth in that but five years after those damning comments, when this otherwise average side needed a moment, the little magician responded just like Maradona used to.
His 35th-minute opener to bring up the four figures – the 789th of his ridiculous career – was another beauty, a textbook curling daisycutter made to look so damn easy.
At his fifth and almost certainly last World Cup, it’s now or never if Messi is to match Maradona and win the big one.
This was his third of the tournament, and while the 35-year-old icon is not the same player we all fell in love with, he’s still plenty good enough to continue carrying this lot.
Julian Alvarez capitalised on Matt Ryan’s howler to bag the second, and the Dutch are next – but it was nervier than it should have been after Enzo Fernandez’s own goal gave Australia a sniff 13 minutes from time.
And for that they have Manchester United defender Lisandro Martinez and Aston Villa Emi Martinez to thank with huge blocks at the death.
The men from Down Under had never beaten South American opponents at the final, with their only previous last-16 game a 1-0 defeat to Italy in 2006.
And talk about out of the frying pan into the fire for midfielder Keanu Baccus, winning his first full cap and being tasked with keeping Messi quiet.
The last time he started a game was for St Mirren against Ross County one month ago in front of 3,589 fans.
But if you thought there were fireworks there, the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium was bouncing over an hour before kick-off to that familiar Argentinian beat.
Not that Baccus was daunted by the incredible sea of blue and white, crunching the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner seven minutes in.
You’d expect a backline made up of Dundee United, Hearts, Stoke and Columbus Crew defenders to be little more than playthings for Messi and Co.
Yet throw on the green and gold and this poor side on paper becomes a different beast.
If anyone looked desperately ordinary early on, it was Argentina – slow, sluggish, shocking.
And then something incredible happened…35-year-old Messi pressed an opponent. No, really, it actually happened.
Messi frustrated Australia all evening with his brilliance
That burst of energy won possession back, Aziz Behich conceded a foul, the noise ramped up to fever pitch, and the Aussies were behind 10 minutes before the break.
The maestro’s set-piece came back out to him on the right. He then squared to Alexis Mac Allister at the edge of the box before darting inside.
The Brighton midfielder played it into Nicolas Otamendi, whose clunky control put it straight into the little magician’s path.
One touch to get it out of his feet, the second was trademark stuff, stroking it with a little curl through a crowd of defenders in the far corner. We’ve seen time and time again yet it still leaves everyone in astonishment.
Cries of ‘Messi! Messi! Messi’ rained down as tens of thousands bowed up and down with their arms outstretched in honour of the great wonder.
And the writing was on the wall for Australia 57 minutes when keeper Mat Ryan had a moment of madness to gift Alvarez.
With the Argentina ultras bursting his ear drums behind the goal, he went for a Messi-esque dribble as Rodrigo De Paul bared down.
A ridiculous risk to take when still bang in the game, Ryan got beyond the onrushing midfielder but played it straight to Alvarez who was backing up.
The Manchester City man rolled it into the empty net and it was game over for Graham Arnold’s underdogs. Or was it?
With 13 minutes to go they were given a sniff when Craig Goodwin’s shot – heading miles wide – cannoned off Enzo Fernandez and in.
Moments later and left-back Behich produced surely the dribble of the tournament, dancing past defenders like Messi used to his prime – only for Martinez to produce an equally outstanding block.
Aussies right at the death, and they nearly paid for it when Newcastle-bound Garang Kuol fired at Emi Martinez with virtually the last kick.
By the skin of their teeth, Argentina’s dream of lifting a first World Cup since 1986 is alive and kicking.
Messi’s wife Antonela Roccuzzo watched on in an Argentina top with his name on
Messi has kept alive his hopes of winning the World Cup