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Argentina, the Netherlands gain World Cup quarterfinals berths

JULIAN ALVAREZ
OF ARGENTINA — REUTERS

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Lionel Messi scored his first goal in a World Cup knockout round in his 1,000th match to beat Diego Maradona’s tournament tally, as Argentina beats off a frenzied Australia fightback to win 2-1 on Saturday and reach the quarterfinals.

Messi his side ahead after 35 minutes with a coolly taken low strike for his 94th international goal, passing the great Maradona’s eight World Cup goals, in a match where he was instrumental in almost every Argentine attack.

Julian Alvarez made it two near the hour mark after pouncing on a howler by keeper Mat Ryan to set up a mouth-watering last-eight clash next Friday with the Netherlands, who beat the United States 3-1 earlier in the day.

With nothing to lose, the Socceroos, chasing a first World Cup quarterfinal berth, pulled a goal back 13 minutes from time when Craig Goodwin’s wayward shot took a huge deflection off Enzo Fernandez and flew into the net for an own goal.

Messi spurned two clear chances late on but it was Australia’s teenaged substitute Garang Kuol who set hearts racing in the stadium when deep into stoppage time his close-range shot on the turn was brilliantly saved by Emi Martinez.

The Australia bench had their heads in their hands as the final whistle blew moments later, sparking fervent celebrations from the Argentina squad and roars around the packed Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

Man of the match Messi admitted the final moments were tense.

MESSI MAGICArgentina took a while to find their stride in a physical match that started off scrappy, with Alejandro Gomez, Fernandez and Alvarez combining well but unable to break down a resolute defense as Messi struggled to make his mark.

Australia had a chance from a corner when towering defender Harry Souttar leapt high in the area but headed tamely.

Lifted throughout by the overwhelmingly Argentine support, which cheered, sang and bounced in unison from all sides of the stadium, Argentina finally made the breakthrough after 35 minutes with Messi the creator and finisher of a superbly worked goal delivered at breathtaking speed.

He took a free kick then picked out Alexis Mac Allister, who passed to Nicolas Otamendi to tap gently back into the path of Messi, who fired low into the corner and beyond the reach of the outstretched Ryan.

Argentina got their second close to the hour after a huge back-pass blunder from Ryan, who came under pressure from Rodrigo De Paul and was robbed of the ball by Alvarez, who turned and slotted home.

Australia refused to give up and launched a succession of threatening moves that rattled an Argentina side whose attention was focused more on their own attacks.

After Goodwin’s deflected shot went in there was a real prospect of extra time in a stadium where the Socceroos had booked their World Cup place via a penalty shootout win over Peru in an intercontinental playoff earlier this year.

They pushed forward relentlessly and nearly equalized when Aziz Behich darted dangerously into the area before a brilliant saving tackle by Lisandro Martinez.

Argentina tried for a third goal, with Lautaro Martinez firing wide and Messi coming close before Australia substitute Garang Kuol missed with seconds left in stoppage time.

DUTCH FULL BACKS SHOW THE WAY TO THE QUARTERFINALDOHA — The Netherlands’ full backs proved the difference as veteran Daley Blind and hard-running Denzel Dumfries turned in decisive performances to help secure a 3-1 win over the United States in Saturday’s opening match of the World Cup knockout stages.

Dumfries netted and had two assists while Blind scored too as the Dutch saw off a brief spell of US resistance to book a quarterfinal.

Striker Memphis Depay got the first goal as the Netherlands advanced to a seventh World Cup quarterfinal.

A comfortable 2-0 halftime lead was halved in the 76th minute as the Americans finally made a breakthrough, even if scorer Haji Wright seemed to know little about the ball hitting his heel and then looping into the corner of the net.

However, any hopes they had of staging a comeback were ended five minutes later as Dumfries sealed his man-of-the-match performance by ghosting in at the back post and side-footing a volley into the net to restore the two-goal advantage.

The Dutch deserved the win but again there will be questions about whether they are serious World Cup contenders — something coach Louis van Gaal keeps insisting they are, although he was quick to admit Saturday’s showing could have been a lot better.

Van Gaal’s side did, though, offer some glimpses of classy potential, no more so than with a series of 20 passes that set up their 10th minute opener — finished off by Depay smartly hitting home a cut-back pass from Dumfries.

The second Dutch goal, on the stroke of halftime, was almost identical. Blind also delayed his entry into the area and Dumfries found him with another perfect pass from the right, allowing Blind to score for the third time in 98 internationals.

The American defense was sucker-punched on both occasions although in between their team had chances, notably Christian Pulisic in the third minute when goalkeeper Andries Noppert got his lanky leg in the way to block the shot.

They also had two second-half efforts cleared off the line but were always vulnerable to the counter-attack where the Dutch could have made much more of numerous opportunities to add to their tally.

In the end, though, they added only one more goal – but at a vital juncture, just as the crowd at the Khalifa International Stadium was beginning to offer the Americans encouragement.

Blind was criticized as the Dutch dithered their way through Group A but reminded everyone of his quality with a deft chip over the defense to allow Dumfries to kill off the contest. — Reuters

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