DOHA: It was billed as a clash between two of the greatest strikers in the world: Lionel Messi v Robert Lewandowski. And as Argentina beat Poland 2-0 to secure top spot in Group C and a place in the World Cup knock-out phase, to play Australia, there was only one winner. For once, Messi was not the Albiceleste's match-winner - he even missed a first-half penalty - but Argentina still danced to the beat of his drum. "I'm angry at missing that penalty but the team came out stronger after my mistake. We knew that once the first goal went in it would change the game," said Messi.
Lewandowski, for his part, never got into the game, a mirror image of his strangely subdued and passive team-mates, who sat back from the first whistle and rarely tested Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. At one point deep into stoppage time, the two captains and stars of their teams went face-to-face, with Messi on the ball. The rest of his performance was insipid, but this time at least Lewandowski showed dogged determination not to be beaten by Messi, and fouled him. Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz blamed Lewandowski's poor showing on the side's lacklustre performance.
"I'm not attacking in any way my team but they didn't help him or help him to score," said the coach. "If Messi had played with us and Robert Lewandowski with Argentina, he would have scored five goals." Despite the chastening evening, there was some solace for the Polish star - Mexico's 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in the other match in Group C meant Poland sneaked into the last 16 as runners-up on goal difference. They will face defending France next, a daunting task. Messi and Lewnadowski were both all smiles at the end and embraced warmly.
The Argentine easily had the upper hand in a game the South Americans dominated from start to finish and was involved in the most important - and contentious - moment of the opening 45 minutes. Messi was adjudged to have been fouled by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny when challenging for a header in the area. The referee initially did not award the spot-kick but changed his mind after a VAR intervention, much to the delight of the massed ranks of Argentina fans, and the surprise of many. Szczesny dived to his left and batted away Messi's spot-kick with a huge right paw.
It was Messi's 31st missed penalty. Messi had been in the thick of things early on, forcing Szczesny into two straightforward saves inside the first 10 minutes. He was also regularly involved in Argentina's build-up play as they dominated both possession and territory. Lewandowski, on the other hand, was an isolated figure on his own up front, crowded out whenever he received the ball, which was rare.
Messi was not involved in Argentina's two goals but took the game to Poland in the second half, and twice drove into the area only to see his shot blocked by a desperate last-ditched tackler. And the seven-time world player of the year could have sealed the win 20 minutes from time but Szczesny got down well to block his weak shot from just inside the box. He then put Julian Alvarez, scorer of Argentina's second goal, away but the Manchester City forward blasted his shot into the side-netting. It was not Messi's best or most influential evening, but he won this battle hands down and his World Cup dream lives on.- AFP