Lionel Messi headed one way, put the brakes on and with a turn of the ankle and a dip of the shoulder set off in the other direction, defender desperately chasing. Robert Lewandowski was the man there, following him and then fouling him. The Argentinian didn’t look pleased; the Pole didn’t either, but there was no way he was going to complain; doing so could cost his country a place in the World Cup, he knew.

It was the 94th minute and it was the first time Lewandowski had got anywhere near Messi, and this wasn’t the way he had imagined it. In every other way, he had been miles off.

So much for that. The big clash was no contest. Lewandowski and Messi have 1,449 goals between them, but there were none here.

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Instead, they were scored by Julián Álvarez, and the son of a former footballer who played with Diego Maradona and ended up in parliament, eventually forming part of Macri’s government. Alexis Mac Allister is his name – the hair is red, the roots Scottish and Irish – and he got his first international goal to finally rid Argentina of any nerves they might have had. Instead there was a missed penalty from Messi and then … well, this.

Whatever this was. Poland, and their captain, were in a very strange place now, the tension tearing at them, doubts creeping into every move, every second. Lewandowski had not mustered a shot and had barely seen the ball all night. If this had been a head-to-head, he had lost it. Just not enough to actually get knocked out, not yet. So now he was defending with the rest of them. But how do you defend for your lives while trying not to make a tackle? How do you waste time if you can’t foul and dive and start fights? That was the doubt Poland had to address now.

They knew they were beaten, but they were weren’t out. Somehow, they were still standing and on the flimsiest of platforms. At this stage they were two goals down but two yellow cards up, going through on fair play, which was a funny name for a rule that as the final minutes slipped away here felt anything but fair.

Poland’s fate was in the balance and in many hands, most of them not their own. Mexico were winning 2-0 at Lusail, they were losing 2-0 at the 974 Stadium and just about anything could nudge them into the abyss. A goal here, a goal there, or two more yellow cards.

There must be better ways than this. A shootout somewhere between the two teams perhaps, high noon for a place in the last 16. It would be great viewing. Instead, they just tried to get to the end without getting themselves into a mess. The problem was that Argentina had started to enjoy this for the first time, and kept coming at them, if a little less insistently now. And when Lautaro Martínez had a clear chance headed off the line in the last minute, it almost fell apart.

Then Danny Makkelie – what power to shape destinies he had in those last 15 minutes – blew the final whistle. Poland were through now, but had to wait in case something happened in the other game. Remarkably, it did.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi shrugs off the challenge of Poland’s Robert Lewandowski.
Messi impressed during victory with Argentina hinting they could yet go the distance in Qatar. Photograph: Jose Breton/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

But, like so much else on a night when they had been taken to pieces, it fell their way. Messi and Lewandowski were embracing, the Argentinian whispering something in the Pole’s ear, when the news came through that Saudi Arabia had scored. Maybe Messi was the one that told him; unlikely but it’s nice to imagine it.

Ultimately, both ended the night celebrating. Argentina’s fans were still there singing way after the whistle. The Poles had gone, slipping away silently. Which felt right somehow.

For Argentina, this had been a test more of the mind than anything else.

When Messi had been given a penalty late in the first half and see it saved, Wojciech Szczesny shooting up a strong arm, it might have been different.

Messi has been here before, never more so than in the shootout at the end of the 2016 Copa America final, completing a run of three finals in three years: none of them lost in 90 minutes, but all of them lost. That day, he walked away, depressed, the towel thrown in.

Now, he’s back, a Copa America winner in 2021 and chasing his last chance at the World Cup. “The feeling was ‘we’re never going to win anything, we won’t win, we won’t win, we won’t win’, and what we said was: ‘The sun will come up tomorrow, win or lose,’” Scaloni had said.

Lionel Messi

Here, that was tested, the fault lines risking opening, the mind wavering. But ultimately they stood strong. The second goal had come early enough, and Poland had slipped into protection mode early enough that it played out without nerves, just a bit of a pantomime.

Or maybe it was more simple: maybe they were just much too good, a feeling returning that said: maybe Argentina can do something at this World Cup after all.

The draw has been kind and this was more like it: this was good, and so was Messi. When it came to the battle of the talismen, it ran thus: 0 shots to 7, 18 passes to 70; Argentina’s 23 shots to Poland’s four told the story, but the foul count became the stat that mattered.