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ON SOCCER

Argentina saved by Lionel Messi as he aims to capture his first World Cup

Argentina's Lionel Messi (10) wasn't about to let his final World Cup end in the knockout round, scoring the opening goal against Mexico on Saturday.Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

It is less than a week into this World Cup, but Argentina believed it was a win-or-go-home situation against Mexico Saturday. Go all-out the Argentines did, taking a 2-0 victory as Lionel Messi broke the match open in the 64th minute.

The game came down to tactics as much as individual brilliance. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni set his team up to attack, willing to risk being outmanuevered by Mexico’s speedy wings, Hirving Lozano and Alexis Vega. Meanwhile, Mexico’s Argentine coach, Tata Martino, erred on the side of caution.

Scaloni went with a four-man back line, but only three of those players were defenders, as he placed midfielder Guido Rodriguez next to Nicolás Otamendi at center back. Scaloni was also proactive with substitutes, and his team scored within minutes after he started making changes.

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Argentina’s goal seemed to come out of nowhere, as Angel Di Maria found Messi unmarked just beyond the penalty arc. Messi took a touch and sent a low shot into the right side of the net. It was among the few times in two games Messi has not been surrounded by defenders, and it helped that Mexico seemed to be flat-footed. No defender stepped out to Messi, as they failed to notice the defensive midfielders — Erick Gutiérrez and Héctor Herrera — were late getting into position. This can also be interpreted as a potential flaw in Martino’s tactical scheme of five defenders, three of them center backs.

For most of the match, the Mexican setup functioned well, as it allowed the outside backs to advance on the wings. But the central defenders were under orders to stay back, and on Messi’s goal one of them needed to step up — instead they all sat back, allowing just enough space for a clean shot.

Before the game, Martino’s alignment was questioned when former Mexico forward Carlos Hermosillo said the five-defender lineup indicated the team was being either extra cautious or fearful, the wrong mentality for such a game. Hermosillo, talking on a Telemundo telecast, clearly believed Mexico needed to play with an attacking mind-set and place pressure on the opposing back line.

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Seconds before the opening goal, Lozano had a breakaway on the right wing, but it ended up being a one on three, resulting in a goal kick. An offense-minded Mexico might have had someone in support of Lozano on the play — maybe that would not have resulted in a goal, but El Tri might have retained possession, via a corner kick or foul, or simply forcing the opposition to retreat.

On the second goal, a curling finish by Enzo Fernández, the Mexicans found themselves standing still once again. Enough of them were back — eight Mexican players were in and around the penalty area — but none attempted to close down Fernandez, until it was too late.

Argentina received a wakeup call in a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia Tuesday. Nothing seemed to go right for the Albiceleste, which had a 36-match unbeaten streak snapped. So, Scaloni changed half the lineup for the Mexico game.

Though none of the new starters factored directly in the goals, they helped improve the team chemistry. Argentina has plenty of options, with a roster deep enough to be able to replace starters from Spain’s La Liga, France’s Ligue 1, and Italy’s Serie A. But the team needed Scaloni to be bold enough to make alterations in both personnel and strategy.

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Martino has been under pressure for months in Mexico. Doubters believe the team is underperforming, but there is evidence El Tri is just not good enough these days, especially without Jesús “Tecatito” Corona (broken leg), plus a first-half injury to Andrés Guardado. Mexico played Poland to a 0-0 tie in its opener, and will have to come out firing in its final Group C contest against Saudi Arabia Wednesday.

“It took a brave game to lift us because Mexico has a great coach,” Messi said. “When we calmed down in the second half, things started to go well for us. The first half went as expected, with several young guys playing their first World Cup. We didn’t come out like we had to come out. It’s not an excuse, but there were two isolated plays and if we went down, 2-0, it’s another game. Today we had to win and we did.

“We can’t let our guard down. Everything is a final, we can’t give away anything. We’ve been together for a long time and we’ve accomplished a lot.”

Messi dismissed speculation about an injured ankle.

“I don’t know why they talk about such things,” he said. “They talk a lot about the twisted ankle, but it is good. I trained the same as everyone.”

But Argentina should not have had to sweat it so much. The Albiceleste is now 4-0-0 against the Mexicans in World Cups and has a 16-2-6 all-time record against them. Next up is what could be a must-win game against Poland on Wednesday, since finishing second in the group would mean a second-round matchup with France — which took a 2-1 win over Denmark. Argentina will need to be going for broke from here in.

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Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.