By Scoring First, Messi Sets the Tone for Argentina

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — For all of his accomplishments, and there are many, there was one thing Lionel Messi had never done at the World Cup: score a goal in an elimination game.

Now that he has done so — his first-half shot helped carry Argentina to a 2-1 victory over Australia on Saturday — he still has a chance at another first: Messi has never lifted the World Cup trophy.

That second one is still a ways away. But squint your eyes as Messi darted through the Australian defense at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday night and it still seems possible. For 90 minutes, Messi, 35, looked like the Messi who made his World Cup debut at 18 and has torn through club opponents across Europe for decades.

With the win, Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals, where it will face the Netherlands on Friday. A potential matchup with Brazil looms after that, and maybe one with France or Spain or England if Argentina can survive those and reach the final. But that will be Messi’s last act. And it is still a ways away.

So much about this era of Argentina’s World Cup history has revolved around Messi, the generational forward who on Saturday made his 1,000th appearance for club and country. Yet even with so much mileage on his legs, his skill shined through against Australia.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

In the first half, Messi and Argentina quietly probed the Australian defense, controlling possession of the ball and looking for any crease. With the guile and shiftiness of Messi, who roams freely around the field, that opening can come at any moment — and through any defender.

Argentina’s Julián Álvarez after scoring his team’s second goal against Australia.Credit…Manan Vatsyayana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Toward the end of the first half, Argentina midfielder Alexis Mac Allister flicked a pass to Nicolás Otamendi in the penalty area. In a slick give-and-go, Otamendi astutely stopped and left the ball to Messi, who took one dribble and fired a shot through the legs of an Australian defender and into the lower left corner of the net. And just like that, the massive pressure facing Argentina and Messi in Qatar, a tournament that began with a stunning loss to Saudi Arabia, felt as if it had lifted.

To celebrate the goal, Messi threw out his arms and raced over to a corner of the field where he was engulfed by teammates in a circle. The stands, largely filled with the blue and white stripes of Argentina jerseys, bounced up and down. It was the ninth goal in 23 World Cup games for Messi, who has appeared in every edition of the tournament since 2006, but his first in a knockout-round game.

Even when Messi didn’t score — his darting run through the Australian defense in the 65th minute ended in a corner kick and more cheers — fans in the stands bowed to him.

But if Argentina is to win the World Cup, Messi cannot do it all alone. And in the 57th minute, he got a taste of the kind of help he will need. When Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan paused too long in clearing a ball in front of his goal while under pressure from two Argentine players, forward Julián Álvarez stabbed the loose ball free, turned and slotted it into the empty net.

The second goal proved critical: In the 77th minute, Australia forward Craig Goodwin fired a left-footed shot from outside the box that deflected off midfielder Enzo Fernández and into the goal.

Desperate to tie the game and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in its history, Australia turned up its attack. In the 81st minute, Aziz Behich wove through Argentina’s players but had his close-range shot blocked. In injury time, Garang Kuol freed himself for an open shot, only to have it saved by Emiliano Martínez. His relieved teammates piled on top of him to celebrate, and up the field Messi surely let out a sigh.

He and Argentina had held on, moving one step closer toward their goal.

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