Argentina 2-1 Australia: Player ratings as Messi guides Albiceleste into World Cup quarter-finals
Argentina survived a late scare to hold onto a 2-1 victory against Australia on Saturday night, booking a place in a World Cup quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Lionel Messi, on his 1,000th career appearance, was the man to provide the spark his side desperately needed. Julian Alvarez doubled Argentina's advantage after the break as the pre-tournament favourites clicked into gear.
Enzo Fernandez's 77th-minute own goal provided a flicker of doubt which swelled to a thunderous tremor as Emi Martinez was forced into a crucial smothering stop deep into stoppage time.
Graham Arnold promised to make the match a 'war'. His troops were in their action stations from the first whistle as Australia sat off in a compact and narrow 4-4-2, stuffing the central slice of the pitch with gold and more green.
Three days after their final group game, Lionel Scaloni's side was pedestrian on the ball and desperately sluggish when trying to win it back.
Argentina's skipper and saviour broke out of a stroll to close down Aziz Behich, winning a throw-in with a rare burst of urgency which stoked the flames of an already boisterous crowd.
At the second phase of a set piece which swiftly followed, Messi punched a square pass to Alexis Mac Allister with an extra zip before darting into the box. Taking the ball off Nicolas Otamendi's toes, Messi stroked a 35th-minute opener underneath Mat Ryan's dive, scoring the 789th goal of his career but his first in the knockout stage of a World Cup.
That energy proved to be infectious. Ten minutes after the interval, Rodrigo De Paul hared after Behich, following the ball as it was played to Kye Rowles and back to Ryan. The Australian goalkeeper managed to sidestep De Paul's maniacal charge but Alvarez sped out of his blind spot to pinch possession, swivelling to roll Argentina into a 2-0 lead.
With the extra layer of security a second goal provides, Argentina played with the swagger which underpinned the 36-game unbeaten run they took into the tournament.
Utterly against the run of play, Craig Goodwin swung his boot through a wild shot which was flying well wide before it cannoned off Enzo Fernandez. The wicked deflection bamboozled Martinez and set up an intriguing final 13 minutes.
Imbued with an added sense of urgency, Behich slalomed forward from left-back, weaving into the box until Lisandro Martinez firmly - and crucially halted his progress. With just seconds left, the ball broke to substitute Garang Kuol but Martinez was swiftly off his line to preserve Argentina's advantage and send them into the final eight.
Argentina player ratings (4-3-3)
GK: Emi Martinez - 4/10 - Skittish when put under pressure with the ball at his feet.
RB: Nahuel Molina - 5/10 - Had plenty of room on the outside of Australia's narrow shape but didn't exploit it enough.
CB: Cristian Romero - 7/10 - A little over-enthusiastic with some of the tackles which he launched into but walked the tightrope steadily enough.
CB: Nicolas Otamendi - 6/10 - No nonsense on the ball and off it, leaving the attempts at penetration to his compatriots.
LB: Marcos Acuna - 5/10 - Given more freedom to canter forward following the substitution of Alejandro Gomez.
CM: Rodrigo De Paul - 8/10 - Stormed around with an undiluted fury - effervescent energy which underpins his status as a fan favourite.
CM: Enzo Fernandez - 7/10 - Dropping right between his centre-backs to try and lubricate Argentina's buildup play. Fernandez was more comfortable - and effective - with the ball further up the pitch.
CM: Alexis Mac Allister - 6/10 - A willing recipient of the ball in tight spaces but often crowded out in a sea of Socceroos.
RW: Julian Alvarez - 7/10 - Buzzed around the final third, the Spider's energy was rewarded with an open goal he earned.
ST: Lionel Messi - 8/10 - Give it to him and pray. Sometimes the simplest approach can be the best.
LW: Alejandro Gomez - 4/10 - Struggled to exert a significant influence on proceedings before he was taken off within five minutes of the second half.
SUB: Lisandro Martinez (50' for Gomez) - 7/10 - Backing up Otamendi after a limp attempt at a tackle with a goal-saving intervention.
SUB: Lautaro Martinez (72' for Alvarez) - 5/10
SUB: Nicolas Tagliafico (72' for Acuna) - 6/10 - Provided much more forward thrust down the left compared to Acuna.
SUB: Exequiel Palacios (80' for Mac Allister) - N/A
SUB: Gonzalo Montiel (80' for Molina) - N/A
Lionel Scaloni - 5/10 - Not for the first time this tournament, Messi kicked Argentina into gear. Only once they were ahead did La Scaloneta play with freedom.
Australia player ratings (4-2-3-1)
GK: Mat Ryan - 4/10 - May have been blindsided by Harry Souttar's huge frame for Messi's opener but couldn't blame anyone for dallying on the ball for Argentina's second.
RB: Milos Degenek - 3/10 - On the rare occasion Degenek aimed the ball forward, it was invariably an aimlessly clearance.
CB: Harry Souttar - 7/10 - Capable of spraying a raking diagonal across the pitch as well as snuffing out any aerial assault in his vague vicinity.
CB: Kye Rowles - 5/10 - Unlike his partner in defence, Rowles took a safety-first approach to his role on the ball.
LB: Aziz Behich - 6/10 - Keen to get forward throughout the contest, he just lacked that last bit of composure at the death.
CM: Aaron Mooy - 6/10 - Shuttled around in midfield diligently, desperately trying to plug any gap in Australia's rearguard.
CM: Keanu Baccus - 7/10 - Quick to appear on Mooy's shoulder whenever Messi picked up the ball in midfield, doubling up on the legendary number ten.
AM: Jackson Irvine - 6/10 - Picked up a suspension-inducing yellow card inside the opening 15 minutes which didn't hamper his urgency off the ball.
RW: Mathew Leckie - 4/10 - One banner in the Australian end read: "Some say Messi. We say Leckie.” It's safe to say more people were saying the former on Saturday night.
ST: Mitchell Duke - 6/10 - Tirelessly tossed his frame around the top end of the pitch.
LW: Riley McGree - 5/10 - Flitted around the fringes of the contest.
SUB: Ajdin Hrustic (58' for Baccus) - 5/10
SUB: Craig Goodwin (58' for McGree) - 5/10 - Got hugely fortunate with his wayward swing towards goal.
SUB: Fran Karacic (72' for Degenerk) - N/A
SUB: Garang Kuol (72' for Leckie) - N/A
SUB: Jamie Maclaren (72' for Duke) - N/A
Graham Arnold - 5/10 - Set his side up in a very good shape but once their resolve was broke, Australia offered little going forward.