Mexico loses Messi, Argentina game, and possibly FIFA World Cup knockout berth in a single moment

mexico loses messi, argentina game, and possibly fifa world cup knockout berth in a single moment

Mexico loses Messi, Argentina game, and possibly FIFA World Cup knockout berth in a single moment

For a few perilous seconds, everyone in a green Mexico shirt lost track of Lionel Messi. The ball was to the right side of the field. He stood alone in the center, 25 feet removed from the goal. No El Tri defender noticed he was there. This is the same sort of high-risk behavior as climbing a sheer rock wall with no ropes.

His teammate of nearly 15 years, his lifelong friend, Angel Di Maria, saw what was possible in that moment. He has witnessed Messi’s mastery for so long. Di Maria’s pass was nothing extraordinary. It didn’t need to be. It just had to be on target and on pace, something that could be controlled before the defense recognized the calamity. And so it was.

Messi touched the ball over to his rocket of a left leg, slammed the ball across the grass at Lusail Stadium and eluded the reach of Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa. Argentina had all it would need, although Enzo Fernandez took advantage of a second El Tri defensive lapse late in the game for a 2-0 Argentina victory at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

For every previous minute of Saturday’s Group C game, Argentina faced the possibility of elimination from the tournament. If they lost, they were out, with no chance to advance to the Round of 16.

MORE Updated World Cup standings

For every previous second, Mexico stood exactly where it wanted to be, largely content to depart with a draw against the great Messi and an Argentine team ranked No. 3 in the world, then play for victory against Saudi Arabia in the third of three group games.

A close soccer game allows for few errors, however.

A soccer game against Messi demands perfection.

Mexico now stands dead last in its group, with a single point from tying Poland in the opener. They must beat the Saudis to avoid breaking their run of seven consecutive appearances in the World Cup knockout rounds.

 

Mexico played the entire game with forward Chucky Lozano marooned in the attacking half of the field with virtually no support, reduced to taking on multiple defenders in the hope a teammate might arrive before he no longer could avoid turning over the ball or possibly was fortunate enough to earn a corner kick by deflecting it off an opponent.

Mexico’s initial plan might have been damaged by a first-half injury to Andres Guardado. Merely by walking onto the field, Guardado, a 36-year-old midfielder, earned a distinction – playing in five men’s World Cups – that put him into the same category as a few of the greatest ever players in world soccer (Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lothar Matthaus) and in Mexico, as well (Rafa Marquez).

Guardado was not there to make history, though, or friends.

MORE: Which players have played in the most World Cups?

Inside the first three minutes, Guardado attacked Messi with a physical foul near midfield, on what was Messi’s first real touch after kickoff. That was a declaration of intent, but 15 minutes later came Guardado’s proof of commitment.

In the 18th minute, the ball was loose in the air between Guardado and an Argentina player who raised a leg above his waist in an attempt to play it. Guardado noticed his opponent was not in control, and so he bent at the waist and leaned forward as if to head the ball.

There seemed little doubt what was happening: Guardado wanted his opponent to kick him in the head and quite likely be red-carded and dismissed.

Is that crazy, or just the World Cup?

MORE Updated World Cup schedule with times for every match

Guardado left early, though, wincing as he walked slowly to the sideline to be replaced by Erick Gutierrez, who made his World Cup debut as he entered.

His inexperience became a factor early in the second half, when Messi got free on a dribble move toward the right and felt Gutierrez closing from behind. With traffic also in front, Messi reasoned it would be challenging for the official to see exactly what was transpiring, so as he made a move toward his left, he kicked himself in the achilles and tumbled to the ground. Gutierrez was whistled for a foul from behind and issued a yellow card. But the free kick presented to Messi, from the 22-foot neighborhood he has converted on so many occasions in the past, floated vacantly over the crossbar.

There were boos from many Argentina fans in the audience. Can you imagine that? He rewarded them for their faithlessness, soon enough.

It was another El Tri veteran, though, 32-year-old Hector Herrera, who was nearest to Messi when he stationed himself above the box. Herrera, more than anyone, ought to have been aware of what was possible in that circumstance. His late charge did nothing to dissuade Messi’s shot from beating Ochoa.

Messi conjured his 2022 World Cup moment, right there.

Because of that, there still may be many more.

And because of that, this may be the shortest World Cup for Mexico in three decades.

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