DOHA, Qatar — It was an odd and unprecedented scene.
After a 2-0 victory over Poland at Stadium 974 in Doha on Wednesday, Argentina and its prime star, Lionel Messi, celebrated having gained Group C and superior to the knockout stage. However Poland was additionally exalting following its loss. Lots of its gamers huddled on the sector round a cellphone, after which cheered and hugged as nicely, a wierd response following a defeat.
A 30-minute drive away at Lusail Stadium, within the evening’s different Group C recreation, Mexico had been main Saudi Arabia, 2-0, with a handful of minutes nonetheless remaining in further time. If that rating held, Mexico would end with 4 factors, the identical as Poland. However Mexico’s streak of advancing to the knockout stage in seven straight World Cups would finish by advantage of shedding the sixth — sure, the sixth — tiebreaker between it and Poland: every staff’s variety of yellow and purple playing cards.
However when Salem al-Dawsari scored within the fifth minute of added time — and with three minutes remaining within the recreation — the distinction in yellows playing cards between Mexico and Poland turned moot. Abruptly, Mexico had a worse objective differential than Poland and thus was shedding the primary tiebreaker. Watching on the display, Poland’s gamers rejoiced. Then moments later, after the ultimate whistle in Mexico’s 2-1 win, they celebrated their nation’s first journey to the knockout stage since 1986.
“Generally defeats are bittersweet, or candy and bitter,” Poland Coach Czeslaw Michniewicz stated via an interpreter. “However we went via, after many a few years.”
The drama of the knockout stage awaits — it begins on Saturday — however Wednesday supplied a tension-filled teaser. Coming into the day, the mission was clear for Argentina and Poland: win and advance. However each groups knew — as did Mexico — of the eventualities through which Mexico might catch one of many different groups within the standings. If Argentina beat Poland, Mexico wanted to win — and rating quite a lot of objectives.
Argentina took care of its personal destiny. After shedding to Saudi Arabia in its first recreation — one of many largest upsets in World Cup historical past — Argentina rebounded and toppled Mexico after which Poland.
Poland’s goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, turned away shot after shot within the first half on Wednesday, however Argentina shortly broke via within the second. Within the forty sixth minute, midfielder Alexis Mac Allister chipped in a cross by Nahuel Molina for Argentina’s first objective. And within the 67th minute, ahead Julián Álvarez fired a shot via a closing window of Polish defenders for his staff’s second rating.
However by then Mexico was main Saudi Arabia by 2-0, which meant all of the groups concerned have been shortly readjusting the maths of their heads. Michniewicz stated he and his coaches had an settlement through which they might not inform their gamers concerning the ongoing Mexico-Saudi Arabia recreation “until nothing dangerous occurred.” At one level, he stated, he did inform Poland’s captain, Robert Lewandowski, and some others.
Understanding that they had an edge in yellow playing cards — and thus the chance to advance if the scores held — Poland modified its method. It performed conservatively, making an attempt to keep away from being too aggressive as to attract extra yellow playing cards via laborious fouls. It additionally tried to attain, however that proved difficult towards an Argentine staff that was targeted on preserving the win.
Within the 78th minute, Michniewicz stated his coronary heart sank. The midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak was issued a yellow card for a tricky slide deal with. Poland’s yellow card margin had shrunk, and it now had 5 complete to Mexico’s seven. 5 minutes later, Michniewicz pulled Krychowiak from the sport and changed him with ahead Krzysztof Piatek for offense.
“We wished to keep away from yellow playing cards and to attain,” Michniewicz stated. “That’s why we had one other striker in. However Argentina didn’t enable us.”
Within the 86th minute, Argentine ahead Lautaro Martínez simply missed huge on a shot that will have altered the group standings and despatched Mexico to the knockout stage and Poland dwelling. And in third minute of added time, defender Jakub Kiwior saved Poland by heading a kick by Nicolás Tagliafico that will have additionally despatched Mexico to the following spherical.
After the ultimate whistle, gamers from Poland and Argentina, together with Messi and Lewandowski, shook arms and hugged. Though Messi had a penalty kick saved by Szczesny within the thirty ninth minute, his youthful teammates helped carry the load.
“Now we have a spectacular group and individuals who ship,” Messi stated afterward in Spanish. “As a result of it’s such a brief event and so many video games in a row that it’s good that now we have everybody.”
However after the same old postgame pleasantries, Poland’s gamers lingered on the sector. The truth that they couldn’t rating late towards Argentina or anxious about their yellow card complete didn’t matter anymore when al-Dawsari scored for Saudi Arabia towards Mexico. Whereas Poland will get to advance, Mexico’s gamers and its coach awaited questions and criticism again dwelling for failing to achieve the knockout stage for the primary time since 1978.
“I assume the duty of this large failure,” Mexico Coach Gerardo Martino stated, including that his contract expired after the ultimate whistle.
Added Mexico midfielder Luis Chávez, who scored within the 52nd minute: “I’m actually unhappy as a result of we stopped doing most of the issues from the primary two matches. We reacted a bit too late. We knew we nonetheless had hopes of qualifying however we didn’t obtain it.”
Poland did, although, and now faces a tricky street forward: It’s going to face France, the Group D winner and the reigning World Cup champion, on Sunday. And Argentina and Messi, in what is probably going his ultimate try to win a title that has lengthy eluded him, will face a neater path: They may face the Group D runner-up Australia on Saturday.
As his postgame information convention neared 1 a.m. and he stored fielding questions on his staff advancing regardless of its poor play, Michniewicz stopped speaking and appeared down at his cellphone. It was buzzing.
“It’s actually late and the prime minister is looking,” he stated.