Al Rayyan, Qatar: Lionel Messi scored his first goal in a World Cup knockout match on his 1,000th career appearance as twice champions Argentina beat off a late fightback by Australia to win 2-1 on Saturday and reach the quarter-finals.
Messi put Argentina ahead after 35 minutes with a coolly taken strike low into the corner for his 94th international goal to pass the great Diego Maradona’s tally of eight World Cup goals for the South Americans.
Julian Alvarez added a second close to the hour mark after a howler by keeper Mat Ryan that put the game beyond Australia and set up a mouth-watering last-eight clash with the Netherlands, who beat the United States 3-1 earlier on Saturday.
Argentina took a while to get into a match that started off scrappy, with Alejandro Gomez, Enzo Fernandez and Alvarez combining well but unable to break down a resolute defence. Gomez had an early chance when he was clear on the left and cut inside but fired off a shot that went wildly wide, while Messi struggled to make his mark in the early exchanges.
Australia had their best chance from a corner near the half hour mark when Harry Souttar, over two metres tall, climbed high to head down from a corner but his effort lacked power.
Buoyed by rapturous, overwhelmingly Argentine support that sang and bounced in unison on all four sides of the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Argentina pressed and finally made the breakthrough, with Messi involved in the start and finish. He took a free kick that was cleared and eventually found Alexis Mac Allister and he passed to Nicolas Otamendi, who tapped it back for Messi to fire low beyond the reach of the outstretched Ryan.
Argentina and Messi came back from the interval hunting for more and got their second in the 57th minute when Ryan bungled a backpass under pressure from Rodrigo De Paul and was dispossessed by Alvarez, who turned and fired home.
But Australia refused to give in and pressed forward with a succession attacks and pulled a goal back after 77 minutes when substitute Craig Goodwin’s powerful and speculative shot took a huge deflection off Fernandez and flew into the net.
With nothing to lose and a chance to take the match into extra time, Australia pushed forward and nearly scored again a few minutes later, when Aziz Behich darted into the area and was goalbound before a brilliant saving tackle by Lisandro Martinez.
Argentina looked dangerous late on as they battled for a third goal, with Lautaro Martinez firing wide. Messi spurned two clear chances in the dying minutes and Australia were painfully close to an equaliser when Garang Kuol missed in front of goal with seconds left in stoppage time.