Lionel Messi had a penalty saved, but Argentina booked their ticket to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup with a 2-0 win over Poland.
Alexis Mac Allister’s scraped effort 60 seconds into the second half broke the deadlock before Julián Álvarez’s brilliant curling shot sealed the three points as Argentina advanced as Group C winners.
The opener came after Messi, Argentina’s all-time leading goalscorer, had his penalty saved by Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny.
Álvarez’s sublime finish midway through the second half concluded a heart-stopping evening for Argentina, who now face Australia.
Poland reached the knockout stage with the skin of its teeth and qualified on goal difference.
The other match in Group C was a close affair, Mexico beating Saudi Arabia 2-1, but victory was not enough for the Central American team and Poland will now play France in the last 16 on Sunday.
Not for the first time in his career, all the pressure has been firmly on the door of Messi, the 35-year-old who is endlessly striving to emerge from the long shadow Diego Maradona has cast over the Argentina national side.
Playing in his 999th professional game, Messi looked up to the challenge, putting Poland in trouble from the first minute.
While the Polish attack produced little throughout the game, Argentina turned up the pressure – and both Messi and left-back Marcos Acuña came close.
Argentina had a great chance to break the deadlock when the video assistant referee ruled that Messi had committed a foul by Wojciech Szczęsny when he was hit in the face by the Polish goalkeeper’s waving hand.
However, Messi’s penalty was brilliantly saved by Szczęsny’s who somehow knocked the ball away with one hand.
It was the culmination of a busy first half for Szczęsny, who finished the opening 45 minutes with nine saves to his name as Argentina turned up the pressure.
The penalty save was already Szczęsny’s second of the tournament and he became only the second goalkeeper since 1966 to save a penalty in the World Cup after conceding it himself, following Joel Bats for France against Brazil in 1986, according to Opta Stats.
It took just under 60 seconds for Argentina to break the deadlock after the break.
A cut back cross from right-back Nahuel Molina fell to the feet of Mac Allister whose scraped effort narrowly missed Szczęsny and sent Stadium 974 into delirium.
It was Mac Allister’s first international goal and continues his outstanding year – he came into this World Cup this season as top scorer for his Premier League club, Brighton and Hove Albion.
That goal seemed to relax Argentina’s players and fans into the ground. Messi, Álvarez and Ángel Di María started to turn on the flair and played with the Polish defense.
Midway through the second half, Álvarez showed why he had been brought in for this game – having started the opening two group matches on the bench – as he curled home to score his first World Cup goal.
With Poland opening up and trying to claw themselves back into the game, more places opened up for Argentina, with Messi, Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez all coming close.
Group C’s conclusion must have been a painful sight for Poland’s fans.
For a brief period during the game, Poland and Mexico were tied on goal difference. That meant Poland would move forward through its better disciplinary record.
With Poland fans furiously checking their phones to monitor progress and with all eyes on whether Polish players picked up a yellow card, there was one final twist to Wednesday’s proceedings.
That was achieved by Salem Al Dawsari’s goal in the 95th minute, giving Poland a superior goal difference, ensuring progression to the next stage.