Sublime strikes by Lionel Messi and Enzo Fernandez earned a largely-disappointing Argentina a 2-0 win over Mexico in a pulsating atmosphere at the Lusail Stadium and got the South American favourites’ World Cup campaign up and running.
Stunned 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in their opening Group C match, Argentina knew defeat would send them out of the tournament but they started poorly, struggling to cope with Mexico’s high press as Messi was denied time and space to operate.
Argentina’s captain was anonymous in the first half, his sole contribution of note a header that ballooned over the bar, as his team failed to carve out a single decent chance. But, picked out by Angel Di Maria just outside the Mexico box in the 64th minute, Messi made no mistake, arrowing a low shot through a crowd of defenders into the corner.
Fernandez then doubled the lead in the 87th with a wonderful curling effort to seal victory. The win took Argentina up to second place in Group C on three points, one behind leaders Poland, who they play in their last group match. Saudi Arabia are third, level on points with Argentina but with an inferior goal difference.
Here’s how we rated the players:
Emiliano Martinez, 7 - Produced a satisfying camera dive from a Vega free-kick that lacked pace late in the first half and generally look untroubled, not that he was tested much.
Gonzalo Montiel, 4 - Brought in for Nicolas Tagliafico but looked uncomfortable on the ball, with repeated heavy touches. Got booked just before the break for a late challenge on Gutierrez. Subbed just after the hour mark as Molina, who started the first game, came on.
Lisandro Martinez, 7 - Started instead of Cristian Romero after his opening-game struggles. Defended well against the tricky Lozano, made plenty of tackles to stop attacks and covered well when De Paul lost the ball.
Nicolas Otamendi, 7 - Similarly to his centre-back partner Martinez, helped blunt any Mexico attacks and not to blame for the way his side failed to control proceedings. Solid in the air as well.
Marcos Acuna, 5 - Like fellow full-back Montiel, he struggled to impact the game as Lionel Scaloni’s decision to replace both full-back who started the loss to Saudi Arabia made minimal difference.
Angel Di Maria, 6 - Showed occasional flashes of what he can do but mostly flattered to deceive, had little end product and no consistency. In some way, this game was a microcosm of his career - so much talent but a source of huge frustration, although he did play the ball in to Messi’s feet from which the little magician scored. Subbed off with 20 minutes left.
Rodrigo De Paul, 4 - Hugely disappointing. Lost the ball to Vega early on, misplaced multiple passes and one of the key offenders for Argentina’s complete lack of control of the game for the first 60 minutes.
Guido Rodriguez, 5 - Dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball to try and dictate play - spending a lot of time between his two centre-backs - but invariably unable to kick-start attacks and gave the ball away too frequently. Subbed on 57 minutes for Fernandez.
Alexis Mac Allister, 5 - A non-descript performance from the Brighton man who you could easily have forgotten was playing. Subbed off with just over 20 minutes left.
Lionel Messi, 8 - Quiet first half during which he looked increasingly forlorn and sending a free-kick in a great position tamely over the bar early in the second half seemed to sum up his game. However, produced a moment of magic out of nothing to give Argentina the lead, scoring for the sixth consecutive game just when they needed him. Maybe at this stage of his career, that’s all you can really ask rather than expecting him to completely run a game as he used to? Also slipped the ball into Fernandez for the second goal.
Lautaro Martinez, 5 - Surprisingly ineffective performance from the frontman as he offered little for a spark-less Argentina. They scored about 60 seconds after he was substituted which probably makes his performance look even worse.
Enzo Fernandez, 8 - Gorgeous finish to put the game beyond doubt at 2-0. Ran at the defence and curled the ball beyond a helpless Ochoa. His first international goal was a beauty.
Julian Alvarez, 7 - Livelier than Lautaro Martinez when he came on and showed some decent touches combining with Messi. Will be pushing to start the final group game.
Nahuel Molina, 6 - Blazed over the bar with a lack of composure from a similar position to where Messi scored, although the ball did bobble up a bit
Cristian Romero, 6 - Brought on to shore things up once Argentina went 1-0 ahead and Mexico offered little after that, so job done.
Exequiel Palacios, 7 - Pressed well and slipped Alvarez through after nicking the ball off a Mexican defender.
Guillermo Ochoa, 5 - Unconvincing punch straight up in the air from a first-half free-kick but got away with it and then beaten from range by Messi for his goal, although wasn’t specifically his fault. Couldn’t do anything about the second.
Cesar Montes, 6 - A threat at set-pieces and had the only shot of the first half when he flicked Guardado’s free-kick wide. Mexico kept Argentina quiet for the most part, so hard to be too critical.
Nestor Araujo, 5 - Early yellow card for a reckless, studs-up tackle hung over his head and part of a Mexican defence that didn’t close down well for either goal.
Hector Moreno, 6 - The third part of the back three that looked solid for most of the game before a switch to a back four after going 1-0 behind left them looking more vulnerable.
Kevin Alvarez, 5 - Subbed off on 65 minutes having offered little as Mexico switched to a back four. His place in the starting XI will be under threat for the Saudi Arabia game you’d think.
Hector Herrera, 5 - Picked up a yellow card on 66 minutes for a foul on Acuna and although he was generally solid in front of the defence, he didn’t offer a huge amount on the ball.
Andres Guardado, 7- The 36-year-old took a knock in the first half and was forced off before the break. At least got to appear in a fifth World Cup but is that the last we’ll see of him at major tournaments? A sad way to go out if so, especially as he was pretty influential in nullifying the Argentine threat while he was on the pitch - an absolute tackling machine.
Luis Chavez, 5 - Part of a midfield that left Lozano and, to a lesser extent, Vega isolated in attack. Would have liked to see more from him going forwards.
Jesus Gallardo, 5 - Again more in attack to help a toothless-looking Mexico would have been appreciated from the left-sided player.
Hirving Lozano, 6 - Looked like Mexico’s liveliest player in attack with some neat touches as he buzzed around the pitch but failed to actually create anything of note. The defensive set-up of his team meant he was often isolated in attack and looked rightfully annoyed to be subbed off with 18 minutes left when his team needed a goal.
Alexis Vega, 5 - Looked lively at points although faded as the game went on. Nicked the ball from De Paul with his hassling and got a free-kick on target just before half-time, although it lacked pace. Was subbed off on 65 minutes
Erick Guitierrez, 4 - Came on for the injured Guardado in the first half as perhaps a surprising choice ahead of Edson Alvarez. Hacked down a charging Messi for a yellow card after the break and then gave Fernandez far too much room for the second goal.
Raul Jimenez, 6 - Brought on with 25 minutes remaining to try and give Mexico a spark. Would be starting if he were fully fit, especially as Mexico desperately need to find something in attack after another toothless display.
Uriel Antuna, 5 - Another attacking presence chucked on by Tata Martino once Mexico fell behind but offered little.
Roberto Alvarado, 5 - See above... You’d suggest leaving Lozano on in his place would have been a better call.