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It was the win the world wanted, the one that kept fantasy alive at this most pitiless World Cup. Lionel Messi is still here; football’s greatest magician will not exit the stage just yet; The Dude abides.

Argentina, and Messi, were brilliant. They dispatched Poland, and Robert Lewandowski, who by some miracle also survived, separated from Mexico by a late Saudi Arabian goal which negated the need for fair play points to decide the second place outcome in Group C.

The second goal, scored by Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez, gave Argentina space to breathe, but frankly they deserved to win by six or more.

Argentina and Lionel Messi dominated Poland to run out as easy 2-0 winners in their World Cup group match in Doha

Argentina and Lionel Messi dominated Poland to run out as easy 2-0 winners in their World Cup group match in Doha

Alexis Mac Allister deservedly fired the two-time champions ahead at the very start of the second half in Group C

Alexis Mac Allister deservedly fired the two-time champions ahead at the very start of the second half in Group C

The Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder celebrates scoring his first ever goal for his country to send them top of the group

The Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder celebrates scoring his first ever goal for his country to send them top of the group

What they did not deserve, however, was the first-half penalty awarded them by referee Danny Makkelie which would have been a travesty had Messi not missed. More of that later.

Back to the goal action and Alvarez’s 67th minute strike, which did nothing for Argentina bar boost their confidence – they were already winning the group when leading 1-0 – left Poland on tenterhooks.

Should a group be decided on yellow cards? It hardly encourages the cavalier and Poland played as if in a stupor knowing one bad tackle could undo them.

The game over here, news came through that Mexico had conceded. Cue jubilant scenes in all parts of the 974 Stadium. Yet Poland were deeply unimpressive and defeat was no more than they deserved.

Argentina then grabbed a deserved second goal with 23 minutes to play when Julian Alvarez struck from inside the box

Argentina then grabbed a deserved second goal with 23 minutes to play when Julian Alvarez struck from inside the box

The Manchester City striker wheels away to celebrate as Argentina dominated Poland to reach the last-16 of the World Cup

The Manchester City striker wheels away to celebrate as Argentina dominated Poland to reach the last-16 of the World Cup

Poland failed to have a shot on target as Argentina dominated the entire game - match graphic provided by Sofascore

Poland failed to have a shot on target as Argentina dominated the entire game – match graphic provided by Sofascore

MATCH FACTS, RATINGS AND STANDINGS

POLAND (4-4-2): Szczesny 7.5; Cash 6.5, Glik 6, Kiwior 5.5, Bereszynski 6 (Jedrzejczyk 72min, 6); Zielinski 6.5, Bielik 5.5 (Szymanski 62, 6), Krychowiak 6 (Piatek 84), Frankowski 5.5 (Kaminski 46, 6); Lewandowski 5, Swiderski 5.5 (Skoras 46, 6).

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Booked: Krychowiak.

Manager: Czeslaw Michniewicz 6.

ARGENTINA (4-3-3): Martinez 6.5; Molina 7, Romero 6.5, Otamendi 7, Acuna 6 (Tagliafico 59, 6.5); De Paul 7, Fernandez 7.5 (Pezzella 79), Mac Allister 8 (Almada 84); Di Maria 6 (Paredes 59, 6.5), Messi 7, Alvarez 7.5 (Martinez 79).

Scorers: Mac Allister 47, Alvarez 67.

Booked: Acuna.

Manager: Lionel Scaloni 7.

Referee: Danny Makkelie (Hol) 6.

Attendance: 44,089.

Compared to Argentina and the wonderful Messi – the oldest player to attempt more than five shots and create more than five chances in a World Cup game since 1966 – this was a negative, conservative performance that handed the initiative to their opponents.

Argentina had every right to be nervous but their fear soon evaporated when they realised how one-sided this decider was going to be.

By the time Alvarez added to Alexis Mac Allister’s opener, Argentina and Messi were playing some of the best football of the tournament.

It was a lovely assist for the second from Enzo Fernandez of Benfica, just 21 and considered a selection gamble by coach Lionel Scaloni.

He looked an old head putting Alvarez in, though, lovely skill and a little dinked pass before Erling Haaland’s understudy lashed it past goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, the Polish player who least deserved to lose.

What a missed opportunity this performance was for his country, though, having not progressed at a World Cup group stage since 1986.

Now they meet France, not Australia. Argentina by contrast have failed to make it through just once since 1962, so many will wonder what the fuss was about.

Isn’t it obvious? It was the fear of losing Messi that did it. God, how this competition needs the pure romance of his presence. Even if he seems to have a strangely unhealthy effect on some people.

This was a World Cup forged on corruption but there has never been the taint of suspicion against any of the events on the field.

At least, until the 36th minute of the first-half, that is. It was at that point it was possible to imagine a narrative had been conjured at FIFA central and it involved Messi and his last World Cup hurrah.

Argentina had completely dominated Poland to that point, but couldn’t score. So the officials decided to net one for them. Had it counted it would have been one of the most absurd, unfathomable decisions in this tournament’s history – and there have been a few.

After Argentina were awarded a penalty, a furious Szczesny confronts Messi over the incident late in the first half

After Argentina were awarded a penalty, a furious Szczesny confronts Messi over the incident late in the first half

This, however, cannot be blamed on a rogue official overawed by the stellar names or the occasion. This was Danny Makkelie of Holland, one of UEFA’s most experienced referees.

He has taken charge of the UEFA Europa League final, of the European Championship semi-final between England and Denmark. If he thought this was a penalty he should never be let near a whistle again.

It began with a shot from Alavrez that was parried by Szczesny, who had a super game. The ball came out and Alavrez retrieved it, crossing deep to the far post. Impressively, Szczesny had got to his feet and recovered, charging to the back post and jumping with one arm outstretched to where Messi was challenging for the ball.

The Argentinian got there first but had steered his header wide by the time Szczesny’s fingertips flicked his forehead on the follow through. Messi collapsed to the floor as if assaulted.

If Cristiano Ronaldo had done it, the critics would have said he cheated. So Messi cheated. There, said it. And in the VAR room, Pol Van Boekel – Makkelie’s countryman who Tottenham fans may remember as the referee who disallowed Harry Kane’s goal against Sporting Lisbon recently and sent Antonio Conte beserk – saw a foul, or an opportunity to make FIFA and the Messi fan club happy. 

Messi stepped up to take the spot-kick to try and give Argentina a first half lead their overall play had deserved

Messi stepped up to take the spot-kick to try and give Argentina a first half lead their overall play had deserved

But the Poland goalkeeper guessed correctly by diving to his left to parry away Messi's shot to safety at Stadium 974

But the Poland goalkeeper guessed correctly by diving to his left to parry away Messi’s shot to safety at Stadium 974

Poland players including Aston Villa's Matty Cash mob Szczesny after his excellent penalty save to deny Messi

Poland players including Aston Villa’s Matty Cash mob Szczesny after his excellent penalty save to deny Messi

Distraught Argentina supporters look on from inside Stadium 974 after seeing Messi fail to score from his penalty kick

Distraught Argentina supporters look on from inside Stadium 974 after seeing Messi fail to score from his penalty kick

He summoned Makkelie to look at the monitor. Surely, two experienced officials couldn’t take leave of their senses. Apparently, they could. Makkelie made the universally rectangular signal which translates as ‘I have lost my mind’ and pointed to the spot. It was a desperately poor decision. Szczesny gained zero advantage from this sliver of contact. Yet, there it was. Messi over the ball ready to ensure injustice was done.

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But, no. Messi hit one to his right but at a nice height and not as snug to the corner as he would have liked. Szczesny kept his hands strong and saved brilliantly.

Around the world, Messi-lovers will have groaned; football-lovers maybe not. Everyone would love to see Messi play out his destiny at this World Cup, but not like that. Not by distorting the game. If Argentina were to score, they needed to do it fair and square.

And they did, 55 seconds into the second-half. It was the goal their pressure and dominance deserved and if it was fortunate, so what? Teams can get lucky sometimes, that’s the sport and very different to a referee almost wantonly altering the narrative. 

Robert Lewandowski never had a chance of getting into the game due to non-existent service as he battles Messi for the ball

Robert Lewandowski never had a chance of getting into the game due to non-existent service as he battles Messi for the ball

So, yes, it was something of a fluke. Angel Di Maria played the ball to Nahuel Molina on the right flank and he cut it back for Brighton midfielder Alexis Mac Allister. He hit a poor shot. Weak, scuffed but both flaws became virtues because it sent the ball on a trajectory that took it into the far corner and tamely off the post into the net, Szczesny at last defeated.

It was no more than Argentina deserved. Poland had been hugely disappointing, Robert Lewandowski isolated upfront, and the team toothless as a result. It was all Argentina. From the second minute when Nicolas Otamendi rose above Bartosz Bereszynski and headed wide, Scaloni’s team were on top. 

Messi had a shot saved after seven minutes, and another three minutes later. Marcos Acuna saw two go wide in the space of nine minutes, while the same time lapse separated two Szczesny saves from Alvarez. Fernandez had a shot go wide from 25 yards and Di Maria almost scored directly from a corner – a vicious inswinger that Szczesny did well to tip over, backpedalling on his goal-line.

So, yes, Argentina fully merited their win and its consequence. Yet it is worrying that so many figures in authority seemed keen to make it happen before it did. On this form, Messi needs nobody’s help.

RE-LIVE ALL THE ACTION AS IT HAPPENED…

Follow Sportsmail’s live blog for the World Cup Group Group C clash between Poland and Argentina. 

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