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FIFA World Cup 2022: Lionel Messi misses PENALTY but Argentina beat Poland to TOP group and enter Round of 16, WATCH

Rest easy, football fans. Lionel Messi will grace the World Cup stage at least one more time. The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0 on Wednesday (November 30) after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez and advanced to the last 16.

After opening the FIFA World Cup 2022 with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, Argentina wound up finishing in first place in Group C and will next play Australia — a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage. Messi rolls into Saturday’s game suddenly in a strong position in likely his final World Cup.

“Now another World Cup begins,” Messi said, “and hopefully we can continue to do what we did today.”

As for Poland, it was ultimately a happy night, too, because the team went through as the group’s second-place team — on goal difference ahead of Mexico — and will next play defending champion France. Messi ended up relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after he was hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick in the 39th minute.

“I’m upset that I missed the penalty, but the team came back stronger after my error,” he said.

A largely pro-Argentina crowd, waving flags and scarfs and beating drums behind both goals, had been sweeping Messi and his team along at the 44,000-seat Stadium 974 and they didn’t stop after the penalty. Within seconds, a chant of “MESSI! MESSI!” immediately reverberated around the venue in a bid to keep their idol’s head high.

And the roars were even louder at the start of the second half, first after Mac Allister’s goal — a scruffy finish from Nahuel Molina’s cut-back from the right — in the first minute and soon after as news filtered through that Mexico had taken the lead against Saudi Arabia, which started the day in third place. Playing an Argentine-record 22nd World Cup game, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace all game to Poland with his dribbling ability and vision. One 40-meter solo run saw him weave past three opponents, drift past another only to miskick as he took aim.

WATCH Lionel Messi miss penalty in Argentina vs Poland FIFA World Cup 2022 match here…

The match was billed as a head-to-head between Messi and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, perhaps the best center forward in the world, but it proved to be a mismatch.

“If Messi played with us and Robert played for Argentina, Robert would have scored five goals,” Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said. “Robert needs to be helped and the match was only played in our half.”

Messi wasn’t involved in either goal, though. For the second, Enzo Fernandez scooped a pass to Alvarez — starting ahead of regular striker Lautaro Martinez — and he took one touch before curling his shot into the top corner in the 67th minute. Things couldn’t have gone better for Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who made more bold changes in bringing in Alvarez, Fernandez and Molina and seeing them play a part in the goals. Mac Allister, meanwhile, didn’t start against Saudi Arabia and has added energy in midfield in the two games since.

Suddenly, Argentina looks more like the team which entered the World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten run and as one of the tournament favorites, a year after winning the Copa America.

(with PTI inputs)

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