At the start of the night, perhaps Lionel Messi and Argentina were under the most pressure... intangible as that might be, you could say that statement with a fair amount of conviction. Failure is simply not an option at the World Cup for that football-mad nation, but a group stage exit? That would be disastrous.

And it was a real possibility when the night started. Not just a mathematical, hypothetical situation that we all come up with when discussing these scenarios. They faced a defensively tight opponent in Poland, with the potential to frustrate them all night. And what happened between Mexico and Saudi Arabia would have decided their fate if they were unable to find answers against the Europeans. Or worse, if Argentina lost, their tournament was over anyway. Lionel Messi’s last dance at the World Cup would have been an ignominious group stage exit.

But what transpired in the end, after some dramatic moments, was Argentina cruising through as group winners with a polished performance over 90 (and some) minutes while Poland were left hanging on to a thread and biting the nails, while Mexico (and Saudi Arabia too) endured heartbreaks.

Poland pip Mexico on goal difference to join Argentina in last-16 on dramatic night

If you missed the mad-cap finish, here’s a recap of the key moments.

First half

At Stadium 974, it was clear in the first few minutes that Poland had set out to not concede and perhaps hold on for a 0-0 draw that would have seen them top the group. They rarely created chances of note, with Robert Lewandowski doing more defensive work than building attacking moves. Argentina, with a few changes to their lineup, started peppering Poland’s goal. Wojciech Szczesny was heavily involved, saving brilliantly from Angel di Maria’s attempted goal directly from a corner – an Olimpico. But his time in the spotlight would come after a ridiculous VAR decision to award Argentina a penalty. The referee (and those advising him) decided that the goalkeeper brushing Messi’s face with his gloves while coming to gather the ball was an offence. Then what, he is supposed to stop coming for crosses?

But while the debate raged, Szczesny made the universally acceptable gesture for “calm down, I got this!” presumably to his teammates, before diving to his left and saving Messi’s spot kick. The legend could only smile because he had hit it well, powerful enough even if the angle was not steep. But the Juventus stopper saved his second penalty kick of the tournament with a sensational right-arm diving stop.

Meanwhile at Lusail Stadium, Saudi Arabia’s verve from the first two matches had gone missing. While they threatened going forward every now and then, coming closest towards the end of the half, it seemed to be all Mexico.

With both matches goal-less, Poland and Argentina were going through in that order.

But then, chaos.

Second half

The first blow came from Argentina, as they scored minutes within the restart of the match. Alexis Mac Allister’s 46th-minute goal would see the Polish defence finally breached at this tournament. The play down the right flank was brilliant, as was the cross from Nahuel Molina. And it seemed the shot was scuffed just enough to deceive the former Arsenal man in goal.

As that happened, Mexico and Saudi Arabia were just walking out for their second half. Their match was just a few minutes behind. Mexico would have known then, that Argentina have started doing them a favour. It was time to get going. Just four minutes after Argentina scored, Mexico too took the lead through Henry Martin.

And five minutes later, Mexico would double their lead thanks to what will go down as one of the goals of the tournament. Luis Chavez scored a stunning free kick and it was pandemonium.

Now, Poland were in real danger. Mexico were level on points and closing in on overturning the goal difference. The next goal was going to be vital...

And that would come from Argentina. Julian Alvarez, starting tonight, found the net after combining well with Enzo Fernandez. The latter, making his first start for Argentina on the back of a fine goal against Mexico, picked out his team-mate, who held off a defender before lashing the ball past Szczesny. Around this time, Messi was also producing a virtuoso attacking display and while he missed the penalty earlier, and finished the night without a goal or assist, his performance early in the second half was an absolute delight. He didn’t have the pace he once had, and that was exposed on a couple of times where he couldn’t break through on goal, but his silky passing and his penchant for maneuvering through defenders came to its fore.

And by this time, with both matches at 2-0, the difference between Mexico and Poland was... yellow cards. The night had started with six for Mexico and four for Poland but the former had picked up one more. Poland were hanging by a margin of two yellow cards soon after when one of their players picked up a booking.

All this while Mexico, looked likely to score the next. They could not bank on Poland getting two more yellow cards or a red. That wasn’t a chance. They had to score. And they came mighty close on a few occasions. Another Chavez free kick was saved, there was a goal disallowed for offside and the Saudi Arabian defence came up with a sensational last-ditch tackle... and the third goal would not come.

In the meantime, Poland had to save the ball from going in through a Szczesny partial save and a goal-line clearance.

It was now increasingly evident that there wasn’t going to be any more action at Stadium 974. A dull few minutes (where Lewandowski nearly inexplicably added to the yellow card count) to close out the match... and there was still a little bit time left at Lusail Stadium.

Mexico needed a goal... but Saudi Arabia got one on the counter instead. It was that man Salem Al-Dawsari again. And now, the group would no longer be decided on yellow cards.

It didn’t change anything for Mexico though, as they needed just one more. Tata Martino was vociferously telling his players, they still needed to score only one goal to go through on the count of goals scored. They would go close once but that would be it.

In the end, Poland made it through on goal difference. Or rather, goalkeeper difference. Wojciech Szczesny’s brilliance was a game-changer.

Group C P W D L GD Pts
1 ARG 3 2 0 1 3 6
2 POL 3 1 1 1 0 4
3 MEX 3 1 1 1 -1 4
4 KSA 3 1 0 2 -2 3

Some trivia

The drama we witnessed late Wednesday night in Qatar is thanks to what is now called the ‘Disgrace of Gijon.’ A match in the 1982 World Cup, or actually two, that resulted in the format that we see now where four teams kickoff simultaneously at the end of a group stage so that one result can’t influence the other.

Algeria arrived at the World Cup finals in Spain as rank outsiders but defeated West Germany 2-1 in one of the biggest upsets of all time. The Algerians, not just for the result, but for their style of play earned plaudits all around while West Germany were left smarting. While Algeria lost against Austria, they would go on to defeat Chile 3-2. But those results would mean, the two European sides would have a say in Algeria’s destiny.

Algeria’s tournament would end in heartbreak however with the infamous match in Gijon when West Germany beat Austria 1-0 in a mutually beneficial result that sent both teams through to the second round.

Bob Valentine, the referee for that match, told The Athletic: “It changed football forever. What happened that day embarrassed the organisers of the World Cup so badly they changed the rules to make sure it could never happen. They couldn’t risk putting on another game that was remembered as so notorious.”

And so, on this night in Qatar, what we saw pan out was a throwback to the rule change that ensured we witnessed a fair spectacle across two venues. We’ll leave the final word to Szczesny, who said it felt like the match lasted five fours for him, adding: “It was dreadful, awful, wonderful.”