Nothing this precious ever came easy. Two parts ecstasy to one part agony, Argentina qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup. They secured a two-goal lead through Lionel Messi and Julián Álvarez, played some of their most unfettered and spellbinding football of the tournament and peppered the Australian goal with shots during a gripping second half.
And yet, did you expect Australia to sit down and accept their fate? This Australia, with its SPFL stalwarts, its honest journeymen, its plethora of guys with surnames as first names? Australia took the hard road to Qatar and they took the hard road out of it, outgunned but never outrun, even burgling a late consolation goal and threatening a staggering shock.
They may not be stuffed with household names. They may have been given the runaround by the world’s greatest player for an hour. But they left every piece of themselves on that pitch, and somehow you sense the game Down Under will never be quite the same.
The wild exuberance of Argentina’s celebrations at full time gave the game away. For all the chances they missed, they knew too that they had been in a war. For all Messi’s influence, his goal in the first half and mesmeric skill in the second, they were equally indebted to Lisandro and Emi Martínez for the miraculous block and the heroic save that denied Australia a stunning equaliser. The Argentina of old might well have buckled. This group has hard edges, hard will, a steel in its soul.
Not that any of this was particularly in evidence for half an hour. Long before the lawlessness of the second half came the holding pattern of the first, in which a sleepy-looking Argentina politely tried to break Australia down, and Australia politely refused. They may have been outnumbered in the stands, where the armies of the Albiceleste wrapped a tight tourniquet of noise around the pitch and were still squeezing an hour after full time. But on the pitch it was the gold shirts who looked busier, buzzier, more numerous. They covered more ground, won most of the second balls, counterattacked with decent numbers.
At which point Aziz Behich, of Dundee United, did something that he will probably end up regretting. It was 10 minutes before half-time and Messi was tussling for a ball near the right touchline. Behich barged him off it, grabbed a piece of his shirt and gave Messi a sharp Melburnian sledge the contents of which will sadly be lost to history. Messi’s angry reaction was the first real human moment we had seen from him all night.
Maybe it meant something. Maybe it meant nothing. All we know is that a few seconds later, Messi collected the ball on the right wing, knocked the ball to Alexis Mac Allister 30 yards out and charged into the penalty area.
With a speed and conviction not always seen from him in this tournament, he picked up the return pass via the touch of Nicolás Otamendi and slid the ball into the bottom corner the way he has done several hundred times before, but never through the legs of Harry Souttar, of Stoke City. It was his first kick in the penalty area all game.
Lionel Scaloni switched to a back three in the second half, and as the game began to stretch Argentina now had a width and verticality that suited them. They were playing with more energy now, more brio and swagger, more spite in the press. Messi made a couple of brisk runs that evoked his electrifying peak. And as Maty Ryan, of FC Copenhagen, received a routine back pass, Rodrigo De Paul sprinted towards him, murderously closing down his angles.
Ryan tried to dribble his way out of trouble. It was a moment of pure impulse, the sort of act where you can already hear the whoops of acclaim from the crowd, perhaps even glimpse your fleeting moment of viral fame.
Unfortunately, in ducking clear of De Paul, he forgot that Álvarez was lurking behind him. Álvarez nicked the ball. Álvarez finished beautifully. Ryan blinked blankly. He could hear the whoops of acclaim. He could glimpse the viral fame. But this wasn’t the way he had planned it.
But things didn’t go the way Argentina planned them, either. With 13 minutes remaining and Scaloni beginning to rest players for the quarter-final against the Netherlands, Craig Goodwin, of Adelaide United, took a wild shot from 30 yards. Enzo Fernández got a deflection on it. And somehow a second later the ball was looping into the top corner, with Emi Martínez totally flummoxed.
For a few minutes Australia’s players shook with belief, their fans with disbelief. In the dying minutes Behich was denied by Lisandro Martínez after an exhilarating dribble. Next Garang Kuol found himself alone with Emi Martínez, who saved his shot with a flying left hand. Argentina breathed again, and now they dream again.
What do they have left to give? From the very start this has been a campaign fuelled by tears and drama, pure faith and pure want.
Is it healthy to expend this much emotional energy this soon? If you’re emptying the tank against Australia, where do you go next? How long can an imperfect team keep riding the wave of desire? Mercifully, thrillingly, we are about to find out all the answers.