DOHA, Qatar — Lionel Messi was pushed into the middle of a joyous post-match huddle as Argentina’s players jumped up and down to celebrate reaching the World Cup quarterfinals.
Messi delivered again for his country, marking the 1,000th game of his era-defining career with his first goal in the knockout stage of a World Cup to lead Argentina to a 2-1 win over Australia on Saturday.
This was not the walkover most were expecting against the unheralded Australians, though.
At the final whistle, Argentina was just as grateful for its goalkeeper as the No. 10 with magic in his boots.
Emi Martinez came up with a sprawling save in the last seconds of an increasingly anxious match to prevent the need for extra time and the potential of another shock in a World Cup full of them.
“That is the World Cup for you,” Messi said. “All the matches are difficult and what’s important is that you win.”
With a flourish of his famous left foot in the 34th minute, Messi put Argentina ahead with his third goal at this year's tournament and ninth in total at the World Cup — one more than Diego Maradona.
“Wow, he's just remarkable,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said.
Julián Álvarez pounced on a heavy touch by Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to tap into an empty net for the second goal, setting Argentina on its way to a meeting with the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
Australia's fightback in the final 20 minutes was as stirring as it was unexpected. Craig Goodwin’s shot deflected into the net off Argentina midfielder Enzo Fernandez in the 77th. Then, amid a late aerial bombardment from the Australians, Garang Kuol had a dramatic late chance when he was left free at the far post. Shooting on the turn, his effort was smothered by Martinez and two Argentina players fell on top of their goalkeeper.
“Before we came here, people were saying we were the worst team at the World Cup and the worst Socceroos team ever,” Arnold said. “That’s gone now.”
On the only other occasion Australia reached the last 16 — in 2006 — the team lost to eventual champion Italy.
Maybe it’s an omen for Argentina, which has fully recovered from its shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening group match and won three straight games.
As for Messi, he now has 789 goals in a career that might yet reach a crescendo on Dec. 18 by winning soccer’s biggest trophy in his fifth and likely last World Cup.
The dream is still alive for the seven-time world player of the year and the tens of thousands of Argentina fans who dominated the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, massively outnumbering the small pockets of green-and-gold-clad Australia supporters and making it feel like a match in Buenos Aires or Rosario.
“The whole of Argentina would like to be here but it's not possible,” Messi said. “This bond, this union we have, it's beautiful.”
After Messi’s goal, the Argentina fans bounced, swayed and twirled their scarves in joyous celebration of their favorite player’s latest piece of ingenuity.
He had been quiet until that point, crowded out by a compact and defensively solid Australia team. He’s never quiet for long, though.
Messi sent a pass inside to the edge of the area and kept running, eventually receiving a lay-off from Nicolas Otamendi to take one touch and stroke his finish through the long legs of Australia defender Harry Souttar — the tallest outfield player at the World Cup.
And when Alvarez added the second, it looked like Argentina was going to cruise to victory. Messi started putting on a show and one 40-meter (yard) dribble wowed the crowd as he slalomed past three defenders and was tackled just as he was about to shoot.
“MESSI! MESSI!” came the chant.
However, after Argentina substitute Lautaro Martinez wasted a one-on-one opportunity, Australia had the best of the late chances after putting Souttar up front in stoppage time for his aerial threat.
“We gave it everything," Australia striker Jackson Irvine said through tears, “but it wasn’t enough.”