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

DOHA, Qatar -- The idea of Lionel Messi bowing out of what is almost certainly his final World Cup after the group stage was unimaginable.

With apologies to Pele, he is the greatest player ever, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner whose magical footwork and wonderous goals are the reason so many people across the world fell in love with this beautiful game. Go to almost any city in the world, and you’ll find someone wearing his light blue-and-white striped No. 10 jersey – and even more who dream of watching him win a World Cup title in it.

He deserved a better end than a group-stage exit after one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. And now he’ll have it.

Eight days after that stunning loss to Saudi Arabia that seemingly jeopardized Messi and Argentina’s World Cup hopes, the Albiceleste are through to the knockout rounds. As group winners, no less.

“We wanted to compensate for that defeat,” said Alexis Mac Allister, who broke through for Argentina in the 46th minute in what would wind up being a 2-0 victory over Poland on Wednesday night.

“Today was a great game,” Mac Allister added. “We played collectively, and it fills us with confidence.”

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

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni cautioned against making too much of his squad’s resilience and ability to turn things around after that initial shock in the opener. The team hasn’t changed, he said, and they shouldn’t be considered World Cup favorites.

Nor should Australia, Argentina’s opponent in the round of 16 on Saturday, be discounted.

“All matches are tough,” Scaloni said.

What matters, however, is that Messi still has a chance to win a World Cup, the one title that has eluded him.

For all his otherworldliness, Messi has only even played in one World Cup final, and Argentina lost that to Germany in 2014. There was hope this tournament would bring, at the very least, another finals appearance. Argentina was infused with young talent and came in with a 36-match unbeaten streak.

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 Wednesday's game with four points and Saudi Arabia having three, Argentina still needed a win to advance comfortably.

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Messi had a chance to deliver, but missed two shots early and then had his penalty attempt blocked in the 39th minute by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.

Argentina had been awarded a penalty in the 36th, when Szczesny smacked Messi in the face when he cleared the ball at the far post. 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. But his teammates came through for him, just as he has for them so many times. Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez both scored in the second half.

As the final minutes wound down, the fans at Stadium 974, which was drenched in light blue and white, cheered and sang, their chants of “Mes-si! Mes-si” echoing across the night.

He might not win the title at this World Cup. But at least he still has the chance to try.

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