Opening World Cup loss little more than bad memory as Lionel Messi, Argentina win group | Opinion

DOHA, Qatar -- Never a doubt.

A little more than a week after Lionel Messi and Argentina were on the wrong end of one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, seemingly jeopardizing their World Cup title hopes, he and the Albiceleste won Group C on Wednesday night with a 2-0 victory over Poland.

Needing at least a draw to advance, Argentina squandered more than a half-dozen chances in the first half, including a missed penalty by Messi. But Alexis Mac Allister put Argentina in front in the 47th with a miskick that was just out of Wojciech Szczesny's reach.

Julian Alvarez gave Argentina an insurance goal in the 67th, smoking a shot from 10 yards out that Szczesny had no chance of stopping.

Argentina is now unbeaten in 38 of its last 39 games, the lone blemish that stunning loss to Saudi Arabia in the opener last week. The Albiceleste now plays Australia, the surprise second-place finisher in Group D, on Saturday in the round of 16.

Argentina forward Lionel Messi reacts during the second half against Poland.
Argentina forward Lionel Messi reacts during the second half against Poland.  

Messi is arguably the greatest to ever play the game, a seven-time Ballon d'Or winner who can spin magic with a soccer ball. But the World Cup is the one title that has eluded him. He's played in just one final, and he and Argentina lost that to Germany in 2014.

Messi said last month that, at 35, this World Cup is "surely" his last, and he and the Albiceleste - to say nothing of soccer fans across the world - would love nothing more than to see him go out on top. But the loss to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 22, coupled with Mexico and Poland's tie later that day, left Argentina at the bottom of the group and desperately needing both wins and goals.

They wound up getting plenty of both.

Messi led Argentina's comeback with a goal in the 64th minute against Mexico, and Enzo Fernandez doubled it in the 87th for a 2-0 win. But with Poland coming into this game with four points and Saudi Arabia having three, Argentina still needed a win to advance comfortably.

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Argentina - and Messi - had their chances early, none better than his penalty in the 39th.

In the 36th minute, Szczesny was able to block a shot from Alvarez, but it caromed back into traffic and Alvarez crossed to the far post, where Messi was waiting. But before he could get to the ball, Szcznesny came out to clear it and smacked Messi in the face.

The blow looked unintentional, the result of momentum more than anything. But a penalty was awarded after a review.

Szczesny briefly closed his eyes as Messi lined up at the spot, then shifted to his right and then his left. As Messi struck the ball, Szczesny dove to his left and extended his right arm high in the air, blocking the ball one-handed.

Messi's eyes widened, and he bit on his lip, knowing he'd just blown a golden opportunity. It was the second penalty he's missed in the World Cup, a first.

But as he's done so many times for them, Messi's teammates were there to lift him - and Argentina - up. And now their quest for a title can resume.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lionel Messi, Argentina make comeback from opening loss at World Cup


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