LUSAIL, Qatar, Nov 26 (Reuters) –
Lionel Messi thumped in a 64th minute goal and Enzo Fernandez added another late in the game to give Argentina a 2-0 victory over battling Mexico in their World Cup Group C match on Saturday and reignite their tournament hopes.
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Messi, who equalled Diego Maradona’s Argentina record of 21 World Cup matches, was nowhere to be seen for more than an hour before picking up an Angel Di Maria pass, finding just enough space and rifling in with his left foot from 20 meters.
Substitute Fernandez made sure of the three points when he curled a superb shot into the top corner in the 87th minute.
The result restored order for the Argentines in Group C after their shock opening 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
Argentina, on three points, can guarantee progress with a win over Poland, top on four, in their final game on Wednesday.
Mexico, who have now lost all four World Cup clashes with Argentina, have one point and must beat Saudi Arabia, on three, to have any chance of continuing their run of making the last 16 in the last seven World Cups, but even that might not be enough.
With the prospect of an Argentina elimination, tensions were high on and off the ball in a scrappy first half but with the two sets of fans creating an electric atmosphere in the stadium.
The opening period did not live up to the match’s billing with neither team wanting to commit too many players forward and apart from a free kick by Mexico’s Luis Chavez in the ninth minute that sailed past the goalmouth, there were few chances.
Mexico’s high pressing game stifled most of their opponents’ attack and Argentine talisman Messi, struggled to find any space to maneuver in a congested midfield.
Apart from a Lautaro Martinez effort that was well off the mark and another from Messi, Argentina were toothless up front.
But in a major blow to Mexico, skipper Andres Guardado, a veteran of five World Cups who until then had been a commanding presence in midfield, had to be taken off injured in the 42nd.
The Mexicans still carved out two more chances before the break with Alexis Vega first curling a free kick over the wall for keeper Emiliano Martinez to save and minutes later thundering a shot over the bar.
The South Americans looked more determined after the break but had no real chance before their 35-year captain dragged them out of trouble with his second goal of the tournament.
The stadium erupted in cheers once more with Fernandez’s late strike which sealed Argentina’s first win in the tournament and rekindled Messi’s hopes of a first ever World Cup title. (Reporting by Simon Jennings in Doha; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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