After being stunned by Saudi Arabia in their opener, Argentina entered the match knowing that a defeat would end their campaign in Qatar. And the pressure worked on them as they couldn’t break the deadlock in the first half, which ended in a 0-0 draw.
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But a different Argentina started in the second half, led by their charismatic skipper Messi, who put them ahead with a stunning 64th-minute strike. The South American team kept looking for the second goal and didn’t let the pressure escape from the Mexican defense line. Their intention paid off in the 87th minute when substitute Fernandez scored with a magnificent curling shot.
The win kept Argentina’s hopes of progressing to the next round alive as they moved up to second in the group standings with three points, ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference. Poland leads with four points and Mexico is fourth with one point after the second round of matches.
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Messi, who equaled Diego Maradona’s Argentine record of 21 World Cup appearances, was nowhere to be found for more than an hour before collecting a pass from Angel Di Maria, finding just enough space and fumbling with his left foot 20 meters away.
Substitute Fernandez secured the three points with a superb shot into the top corner in the 87th minute.
With the prospect of an Argentine exit, tensions were high on and off the ball in a scrappy first half, but with both sets of supporters creating an electric atmosphere in the stadium.
The opening period fell short of the game’s billing, with neither side wanting to commit too many forwards and apart from a ninth-minute free kick from Mexico’s Luis Chavez that went over the goal mouth, there were few chances.
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Mexico’s high pressure play snuffed out most of their opponents’ attacks and Argentine talisman Messi struggled to find space to maneuver in a congested midfield.
Apart from an effort from Lautaro Martinez which was wide of the mark and another from Messi, Argentina were toothless up front.
But in a blow to Mexico, skipper Andres Guardado, a veteran of five World Cups who until then had been a dominant presence in midfield, had to be withdrawn injured in the 42nd.
The Mexicans still got two more chances before the break. First Alexis Vega curled a free kick over the wall for goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to save and a few minutes later he fired a shot over the bar.
The South Americans looked more determined after the break but had no real chance before their 35-year-old captain bailed them out with his second goal of the tournament.
The stadium was once again erupted with joy as Fernandez’s late strike sealed Argentina’s first win of the tournament and revived Messi’s hopes of a first-ever World Cup title.
The result restored order for the Argentines in Group C and they can secure their progress with a win over Poland in their final game on Wednesday. Mexico, who have now lost all four World Cup clashes with Argentina, must beat Saudi Arabia to have any chance of continuing their run to the knockout stages of the last seven World Cups, but even that could not be enough.
(With agency contributions)