DOHA: It was a strange and unprecedented scene. After a 2-0 win before Poland at Stadium 974 in Doha on Wednesday, Argentina and its top star, Lionel Messi, celebrate their victory in Group C and advance to the knockout stages. But Poland are also cheering after their loss. Many of their players huddled on the pitch around a cell phone, then also cheered and hugged, a strange reaction to the defeat.
A 30-minute drive away at Lusail Stadium, during another Group C match on the night, Mexico took the lead Saudi Arabia2-0, with a few minutes remaining in extra time. If that score stays the same, Mexico will finish with 4 points, equal to Poland. But Mexico’s run to the knockout stages in seven consecutive World Cups will come to an end due to the loss of the sixth game – yes, the sixth – between them and Poland: the number of yellow and red cards for each team.
But when Salem al-Dawsari scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time — and with three minutes remaining — the difference in yellow cards between Mexico and Poland became controversial. Suddenly, Mexico had a worse goal difference than Poland and thus lost the first tiebreak.
Looking on the screen, the Polish players rejoiced. Moments later, after the final whistle in Mexico’s 2-1 win, they celebrated their country reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.
Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said through an interpreter: “Sometimes failures are bittersweet, or sweet and bitter. “But we got through, after many, many years.”
The drama of the knockouts awaits — it kicks off on Saturday — but Wednesday delivered a tense trailer. Entering match day, Argentina and Poland’s mission was clear: win and move on. But both teams know – so does Mexico – of situations where Mexico could catch up with one of the other teams in the standings. If Argentina defeats
Poland, Mexico need to win — and score lots of goals.
Argentina took care of their own fate. After losing to Saudi Arabia in the first game – one of the biggest defeats in World Cup history – Argentina recovered and toppled Mexico and then Poland.
Poland’s goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saved shot after shot in the first half on Wednesday, but Argentina quickly took the lead in the second half. In the 46th minute, midfielder Alexis Mac Allister blocked Nahuel Molina’s pass to score Argentina’s first goal. And in the 67th minute, striker Julián Álvarez hit a shot through the Polish defenders’ goal to score his team’s second goal.
But at the time, Mexico was leading Saudi Arabia 2-0, which meant that all the participating teams quickly adjusted the calculation in their heads. Michniewicz said he and his coaches had an agreement in which they would not tell his players about the ongoing Mexico-Saudi Arabia match “unless nothing bad happens”.
At one point he spoke to Poland’s captain, Robert Lewandowski, and a few others, he said. Knowing they had the yellow card advantage – and therefore a chance to progress if the score remained the same – Poland changed their approach. They played cautiously, trying to avoid being too aggressive to draw more yellow cards for rough fouls. They also managed to score, but that proved difficult against an Argentinian team focused on securing victory.
Minute 78, Michniewicz said his heart was tightening. Midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak is shown a yellow card for a rough tackle. Poland’s yellow card percentage has dropped, and they now have a total of 5 yellow cards compared to Mexico’s 7.
Five minutes later, Michniewicz withdrew Krychowiak from the game and replaced him with striker Krzysztof Piatek for a foul.
“We want to avoid yellow cards and score goals,” said Michniewicz. “That’s why we have another striker. But Argentina won’t allow us.”
In the 86th minute, Argentina striker Lautaro Martínez made a shot wide of the post that could change the standings of the table and send Mexico into the knockout stages and Poland home. And in the third minute of injury time, defender Jakub Kiwior saved Poland by heading home to Nicolás Tagliafico, a kick that sent Mexico into the next round.
After the final whistle, the Polish and Argentine players, including Messi and Lewandowski, shook hands and hugged. Although Messi was saved a penalty by Szczesny in the 39th minute, his young teammates helped.
Then, Messi said in Spanish: “We have a spectacular team and people who are able to deliver. “Because it’s a short tournament and there are so many games in a row it’s good that we have everyone.”
But after the usual fun after the game, the Polish players lingered on the pitch. It didn’t matter whether they could not score late against Argentina or worry about the total number of yellow cards when al-Dawsari scored for Saudi Arabia against Mexico. While Poland advanced, the Mexican players and their coach waited for questions and criticism at home for failing to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1978.
“I accept responsibility for this huge defeat,” said Mexico coach Gerardo Martino, adding that his contract expired at the final whistle. Mexican midfielder Luis Chavez, who scored in the 52nd minute, added: “I’m really sad that we stopped doing a lot of things in the first two games. We reacted a bit late. We knew we still had hope of qualifying, but we didn’t get there.”
However, Poland made it, and now face a tough road ahead: They will face France, the winners of Group D and the defending World Cup champions, on Sunday. And Argentina and Messi, in a final bid to claim the title he has long eluded, will face an easier path: They will face Group D runners-up Australia on Saturday.