Argentina and Messi begin to flex muscles for World Cup playoffs

After a stuttering start, South American champions Argentina are starting to find form at the World Cup. Their timing is perfect as they head into the knockout stages.
When they needed it most, Argentina found their best performance of the World Cup so far as they defeated Poland 2-0 in their final pool match, a result that sealed them top spot in Group C and a last-16 meeting with Australia.
It has already been a roller-coaster ride in Qatar for the South Americans, who came into the tournament on the back of a 36-match unbeaten run under coach Lionel Scaloni, but looked rusty in their stunning opening 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia.
It immediately put them on the back foot in the pool, but they did enough to see off Mexico 2-0 in another unconvincing display in their second match, before a much-improved showing against the Polish at Stadium 974, where they were roared on by the vast majority of the 44,089 crowd.
“We wanted to compensate for the defeat (against Saudi Arabia). Today it was a great game, we played very well collectively,” Argentina goal-scorer Alexis Mac Allister said, adding the team did not let their heads drop after Lionel Messi missed a first-half penalty.
“We tried to stay positive, to stay calm. We did not feel down. We tried to be optimistic and go for the match. Fortunately, we managed to win and go through.”
There was more zip, better combination play and an altogether more polished Argentina on Wednesday, when they had 24 shots at goal, which suggests a theory put forward by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez last week may well be true.
Martinez said most teams will only be ready to compete in Qatar by their third pool game, given they had such little time to train ahead of the World Cup and some went into the finals without a friendly behind them.
“This tournament is going to make you develop and grow as it goes on. If you do that by winning games, it’s an incredible advantage,” he said.
Certainly, the evidence when it comes to Argentina is compelling. They have improved steadily and saved their best performance for arguably their toughest pool opponent.
‘Messi will always be decisive’
That should sound a warning to the other title hopefuls that Lionel Messi and co are starting to click into gear. And they may have some more to go through yet.
Messi trundled around the pitch, only bursting ...