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Argentina, Poland book their places in the knockout stage

LIONEL Messi of Argentina — REUTERS/JOEL MARKLUND

DOHA — Lionel Messi missed a first-half penalty but Argentina’s Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez scored in a 2-0 victory over Poland at Stadium 974 on Wednesday as both teams booked their places in the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Argentina’s victory propelled Lionel Scaloni’s side to the top of Group C and they will face Australia in the last-16 while second-placed Poland, who qualified on goal difference after Mexico beat Saudi Arabia 2-1, take on reigning champions France.

Argentina took the lead just one minute into the second half when Mac Allister got on the end of Nahuel Molina’s cross and, despite making weak contact, he saw his shot creep over the line with Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny beaten.

The goal was just reward for Argentina who had dominated possession while Poland had barely managed to get out of their own half, with the South American side’s goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez a mere spectator for the majority of the game.

The second goal was the result of some patient buildup where Argentina knocked the ball around before Enzo Fernandez unlocked the defense with a through-ball for Alvarez, who found space in the box and smashed it into the top corner.

CONTROVERSIAL PENALTYPoland were up in arms in the first half when Argentina were awarded a controversial penalty after a VAR check for a foul on Messi when Szczesny’s glove brushed his face as the Paris St Germain forward rose up for a header at the far post.

But Szczesny was up to the task and despite the thousands of Argentina fans raising the decibel levels inside the arena, he kept his composure and guessed correctly, diving to his left and using one hand to swat aside Messi’s effort from the spot.

Despite the miss, Messi ran the show for Argentina in a match where the two skippers represented Barcelona’s past and present.

With a last-16 spot and potential elimination both on the cards in a close group, it was Barca’s record goal scorer Messi who was at the heart of Argentina’s attacks, dictating play by dropping deep and tormenting the Polish defense.

Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, who has 18 goals in 19 games for Barca this season, did not have a single attempt on goal.

At the other end, Szczesny had been kept busy the entire half with the Poland defense breached time and again but the Juventus keeper stood firm to deny Argentina who grew more confident with every attack.

He first denied Alvarez when the Manchester City forward broke through the offside trap before he tipped Angel Di Maria’s cross over the bar when his Juve team mate attempted to score directly from a corner kick.

‘DREAM COME TRUE’But Szczesny could do nothing but scramble helplessly when Mac Allister took his shot even before Poland could settle down after the restart while Alvarez’s shot for the second goal was too good for any keeper.

Argentina nearly made it 3-0 in second-half added time when Nicolas Tagliafico was released down the left and he chipped the ball over Szczesny, only to see Jakub Kiwior track back to make a timely intervention and head the ball off the line.

But Argentina got what they wanted — leapfrogging Poland to take top spot in the group and avoid an early knockout fixture against the mighty France.

Poland, meanwhile, will be relieved to reach the last-16 by the skin of their teeth for the first time since 1986.

AUSTRALIA 1, DENMARK 0Mathew Leckie broke the deadlock in the 60th minute and Australia advanced to the last 16 for the first time since 2006 with a 1-0 defeat of Denmark in Group D on Wednesday at Al Wakrah, Qatar.

After Leckie finished off a successful counterattack, Denmark’s last best chance came about 10 minutes later when the Danes were called for a penalty after a foul against Kasper Dolberg. Dolberg, however, was ruled offside.

The Socceroos lost 1-0 to Italy in their only previous appearance in the knockout stages 16 years ago.

Denmark got three saves from Kasper Schmeichel but finished at the bottom of the group with one point.

MEXICO 2, SAUDI ARABIA 1In a wild ending Wednesday, Mexico defeated Saudi Arabia in Group C, 2-1, but it didn’t win by enough and for the first time since 1978 failed to advance out of the World Cup group stage.

Mexico led 2-0 going into stoppage time at Lusail, Qatar, desperately needing a third goal to advance to the knockout stage; at just a two-goal advantage, they were losing to Poland on fair-play points (yellow cards).

Despite getting 26 shots and 11 on goal, El Tri couldn’t get another goal, and got caught by Salem Al-Dawsari, who scored on a breakaway in stoppage time to ensure Mexico would lose the tiebreaker to Poland on goal differential.

Mexico entered the day needing to win and make up five goals on Poland. They made up four of those goals when Henry Martin (47th minute) and Luis Chavez (52nd) scored early in the second half, and within minutes of each of those goals, Argentina scored twice against Poland.

TUNISIA 1, FRANCE 0Wahbi Khazri’s goal against the defending World Cup champion France was bittersweet as Tunisia was eliminated despite its victory in Doha, Qatar.

Khazri, who was born in France, fought through traffic to score in the 58th minute to give Tunisia just its third win in six World Cup tournaments.

France had already booked its spot in the knockout stage and finished on top of Group D with six points, ahead of runner-up Australia based on goal differential. — Reuters

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