Second-half goals from Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez helped Argentina limp towards a 2-0 victory against Mexico on Saturday night.
The Lusail Iconic Stadium will be the venue for the World Cup final but it served as the setting for what Lautaro Martinez described as the first of “two finals” for Argentina after the shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opener.
Very much like a final, it was a desperately cagey contest pockmarked by niggling fouls, spiky challenges and few chances.
Argentina began the game hampered by the pressure of the circumstances and - more pertinently - Mexico's energetic start, forcing the Copa America champions into aimless punts clear.
Lionel Scaloni gave his team a lofty buildup ahead of the contest, pledging: “We will give everything, every last bead of sweat, to turn this around.” Martinez went one step further: “We will break our backs for Argentina.” Yet, the opening hour was painfully listless as Argentina seemed to fret over the possibility of losing rather than the necessity to win.
Messi had been well-muzzled by Mexico's hoard of dogged midfielders, forcing Argentina's skipper to drop deep into his own half in search of a whisper of space for most of the match. 'Most' being the operative word.
As his former manager at international and club level, Mexico boss Gerardo Martino was well aware of Messi's propensity to flicker into life. "Sometimes even without being on top of your game for 90 minutes, in five minutes everything can happen," he prophetically warned.
Hector Herrera was caught on his heels as Angel Di Maria fired the ball across the edge of the box. Taming a fiercely struck pass with one touch, Messi swatted a low, fizzing effort into the bottom corner with his second, nestling it in the ratonera - the mouse nest, as they say in Argentina.
What they will be saying back in Buenos Aires and beyond will invariably be some form of thanks to their skipper. Fernandez sealed three points which keeps Argentina's future in their own hands in the 87th minute, bending a sumptuous effort into the top corner as Mexico completely switched off from a short corner. But this was Messi's night. Victory ensures there may be more of those to come this winter. Argentina will certainly hope so.
Argentina vs Mexico player ratings - World Cup
1. Argentina (4-4-2)
GK: Emi Martinez - 6/10 - Impressively held onto a swirling free kick rather than beating it away.
RB: Gonzalo Montiel - 5/10 - Chugged up and down the wing with more function than flair.
CB: Nicolas Otamendi - 5/10 - At home in this scrappy contest but too often belted the ball away when put under pressure.
CB: Lisandro Martinez - 4/10 - Stepping forward with the ball but scarcely incisive from that position.
LB: Marcos Acuna - 3/10 - Got away with a sneaky set of studs sunk into Kevin Alvarez's calf in the first half.
RM: Angel Di Maria - 6/10 - Wandered around even more nomadically than Messi, flittering in and out of the game.
CM: Rodrigo De Paul - 3/10 - The lofty stakes of the setting seemed to be most prevalent in the mind of De Paul, who stormed around with a manic urgency which didn't help anyone.
CM: Guido Rodriguez - 5/10 - Dropping right between the centre-backs, creating a back-three when Argentina have the ball to release the fullbacks.
LM: Alexis Mac Allister - 5/10 - Floating infield when Argentina are on the ball, Mac Allister kept his passing safe.
ST: Lionel Messi - 7/10 - Whenever he wriggled past one green shirt there seemed to be another eagerly waiting his turn to snap at his heels. Given a pocket of space, Messi hauled Argentina to victory.
ST: Lautaro Martinez - 4/10 - The one fixed point in Argentina's attack, Lautaro was limited to snatched flickers of goal.
SUB: Enzo Fernandez (57' for Rodriguez) - 7/10 - Provided the second moment of quality in the match.
SUB: Julian Alvarez (63' for Martinez) - 5/10
SUB: Nahuel Molina (63' for Montiel) - 5/10
SUB: Cristian Romero (70' for Di Maria) - N/A
SUB: Exequiel Palacios (70' for Mac Allister) - N/A
Manager: Lionel Scaloni - 4/10 - This was not a victory of tactical wizardry. Argentina looked lost until Messi fired them ahead. Could take a morsel of credit by introducing a substitute who scored but that would be a stretch.
2. Mexico (3-5-2)
GK: Guillermo Ochoa - 5/10 - A little shaky when coming for high balls but not overly troubled.
CB: Nestor Araujo - 6/10 - Guilty of some full-blooded tackles which may have actually drawn blood as he took a forceful approach.
CB: Cesar Montes - 7/10 - Sweeping up any scraps as the deepest of Mexico's back three.
CB: Hector Moreno - 6/10 - Carried out his defensive duties without much fuss.
RWB: Kevin Alvarez - 5/10 - Skirted around the fringes of a scratchy contest.
CM: Hector Herrera - 7/10 - Not overly decisive in possession but a constant spoke in Argentina's wheel.
CM: Luis Chavez - 7/10 - Scurrying and scuttling with enduring diligence.
CM: Andres Guardado - N/A - Ratting around midfield venomously before injury forced him off in the first half.
LWB: Jesus Gallardo - 5/10 - Struggled to pin down Di Maria when lured into a one-on-one.
ST: Hirving Lozano - 5/10 - Diligent out of possession but didn't prove to be the same nuisance when he had the ball.
ST: Alexis Vega - 6/10 - Selflessly haranguing Argentina's backline off the ball.
SUB: Erick Gutierrez (42' for Guardado) - 6/10 - Quickly caught up to the speed of the contest, matching the velocity demanded to close down the man in possession.
SUB: Raul Jimenez (66' for Vega) - 5/10
SUB: Uriel Antuna (66' for Alvarez) - 5/10
SUB: Robert Alvarado (73' for Lozano) - N/A
Manager: Gerardo Martino - 5/10 - The Argentinian manager of Mexico set up his side to frustrate his home nation well for an hour but offered almost no threat going forward themselves.