World Cup Daily: Timeless Messi is on a mission for Argentina

After each matchday of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Sportsnet.ca’s World Cup Daily blog will recap the day’s events and look ahead to the next day’s slate of games.              

Here’s what happened on Saturday in Qatar, in case you missed it…              

THE RESULTS

Netherlands 3, United States 1 in Al Rayyan: Match report || Match stats 

Argentina 2, Australia 1 in Al Rayyan: Match report || Match stats 

Quarter-finals matchup: Argentina vs. the Netherlands in Lusail (Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. ET) 

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MAIN TALKING POINT 

Lionel Messi marks special milestone with another goal 

At age 35, Lionel Messi is on the home stretch of a remarkable career that will surely end with him taking up permanent residence in the sport’s pantheon alongside the all-time greats. But he’s playing like a man half his age in Qatar, and appears to be on a mission to lead Argentina to its third World Cup crown — the first since Diego Maradona put La Albiceleste on his shoulders and carried them to glory 36 years ago in Mexico. 

Saturday marked Messi’s 1,000th combined game for club and country, and he wasn’t going to let the occasion pass without doing something special. It happened in the 35th minute after Argentina failed to break down a defensively resolute Australia. The Socceroos couldn’t clear their lines as the ball was played into the box, and it eventually fell to the magical Messi, who stroked a low, curling shot through the legs of a defender and inside the post. 

It was his third goal of this tournament, and ninth overall at the World Cup, moving him past Maradona on Argentina’s all-time scorer’s list at the competition. He is now just one behind the leader, Gabriel Batistuta. His first-ever goal in the knockout stages of the World Cup was also the 789th of his career, but you just know he will add more to that tally by the time he leaves Qatar.

If Argentina is to win the World Cup a third time, it won’t be solely because of Messi. The Paris Saint-Germain star has a strong supporting cast of young players helping him out, most notably Alexis Mac Allister (23), Julián Álvarez (22) and Enzo Fernández (21), all of whom have made major contributions to the Argentine cause. 

Still, there is no escaping the fact that this is Messi’s team, and that when Argentina is in need of a moment of inspiration and individual brilliance, they inevitably look towards the man wearing the No. 10 jersey. With every touch of the ball on Saturday, the largely pro-Argentina crowd gathered inside Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in All Rayyan anxiously waited to see what kind of magic would soon unfold. More times than not, they weren’t disappointed.

Netherlands shows its class in win over the U.S. 

Netherlands right back Denzel Dumfries. (Ashley Landis/AP)

The American dream died a slow, lingering death on Saturday at the FIFA World Cup, buried alive by an Oranje avalanche. Except for a brief spell in the second half where the United States looked to have the Netherlands on the ropes as it sought an equalizer, Louis van Gaal’s side outclassed their Concacaf opponents quite comfortably, spurred on by the magnificent play of their two wingers, Daley Blind and Denzel Dumfries. 

You know it was going to be a long day for the U.S. after Christian Pulisic spurned a glorious scoring chance that would’ve given his country the lead after only four minutes. The Dutch quickly settled down and took control of the game, and then shredded the Americans apart with a 20-pass attacking sequence that gave them the lead after only 10 minutes. It was a goal that reeked of class and ruthlessness, the Netherlands’ Clockwork Orange precision – or Oranje in this case – underlining the huge gap between the two nations. 

The goal was also the first allowed by the U.S. from the run of play in Qatar and was essentially the nail in its coffin. In 37 World Cup matches, the American men’s team has never won a game in which it has trailed. 

A second killer blow came right before halftime when Dumfries played a cross into the box for Blind, who scored his third international goal for the Dutch and first in over eight years. A fortuitous goal courtesy of second-half substitute Haji Wright in the 76th minute was the highlight of a fervent eight-minute period in which the Americans looked like they would complete an improbable comeback and force extra time.  

But the Dutch quickly snuffed that out, as Blind crossed into the box for a completely unmarked Dumfries, who volleyed home his shot past goalkeeper Matt Turner. This young U.S. team had plenty of resolve, but that can only carry you so far at the World Cup, especially against a team the calibre of the Netherlands. 

GOAL OF THE DAY

The Netherlands put together a stunningly beautiful 20-pass sequence that ended with Denzel Dumfries picking out Memphis Depay near the penalty spot with a low cross and the Barcelona man hitting a first-time shot that swept past American goalkeeper Matt Turner. 

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MOMENT OF THE DAY

Netherlands midfielder Daley Blind rushed to the sidelines to embrace his father Danny, a former player of some repute and current assistant coach with the Dutch national team, after scoring against the United States. 

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“When you play a team with so much quality like that and you give them three, four chances, they’re going to put three or four away.” – United States captain Tyler Adams 

SIX PACK OF STATS

• The Netherlands’ men’s team is unbeaten in its last 20 World Cup games against non-European opponents (with 14 wins), dating back to its quarter-final loss vs. Brazil in 1994.   

• At 25 years and 84 days, the United States’ starting lineup was the youngest in a men’s World Cup knockout match since Slovakia (24 years and 239 days) vs. the Netherlands in 2010.        

• Concacaf nations have won just one of their last 21 matches at the men’s World Cup against UEFA opposition (with 13 losses).        

• At 21 years and 320 days, Enzo Fernández is the youngest member of Argentina’s men’s team to start a World Cup knockout match since Ariel Ortega against Romania in 1994 (20 years and 121 days).        

• Julián Álvarez is the sixth player to score in each of his first two World Cup starts for Argentina, and the first to do so since Hernán Crespo in 2006. 

• Lionel Messi has opened the scoring in six matches at the men’s World Cup, the joint-most of any player in the history of the competition. 

Stats courtesy of Opta              

THREE STARS OF THE DAY

1) Denzel Dumfries, the Netherlands: After collecting assists on his team’s first two goals, he scored in the 81st minute to kill off any chance of an American comeback and secured a well-deserved win for the Dutch. 

2) Lionel Messi (Argentina): The Argentine wizard scored his third goal of this World Cup and produced several moments of magic in what turned out to be a tight game against Australia, helping his country to move on. 

3) Daley Blind, the Netherlands: Like Dumfries, he caused the U.S. all kinds of problems with his outstanding play down the left wing. Scored the Netherlands’ second goal and then set up his team’s third to put the Americans away. 

LOOKING AHEAD TO SUNDAY

The round of 16 continues on Sunday with two more matchups.

France takes on Poland (10 a.m. ET) in a match between nations that are coming off losses in their final group-stage games. But the French made a slew of line-up changes, and with Kylian Mbappé leading a first-rate attack, the Polish could be in for a rough time.

The late game sees England take on Senegal (2 p.m. ET).  The Africans have done very well to get this far in the tournament without veteran forward Sadio Mané (ruled out of the World Cup due to injury), while England relied on its core of exciting young players to go undefeated through the first round. 

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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