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Lionel Messi marked his 1,000th senior national team appearance with the opening goal as Argentina booked their place in the World Cup quarter-finals by defeating Australia 2-1.
Essi produced the first moment of quality to break the deadlock near the end of the first half and Julian Alvarez pounced on a goalkeeper error to put the two-time world champions Argentina in complete control early in the second half.
Australia emerged from the fight at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium and ensured an unease-filled finale after Craig Goodwin’s deflected shot pulled one back.
It took a brilliant last-minute tackle from Argentina defender Lisandro Martinez to deny Australian Aziz Behesh’s stunning 80th-minute equalizer.
The quarter-final match against the Netherlands on Friday now awaits Argentina, who recovered from a shock 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia in their opening match of the tournament to finish top of Group C.
The Argentina fans were heavily outnumbered by the Australian fans as the expected opener unfolded.
Argentina’s well-trained line-up forced a patient and cautious approach, and it wasn’t until the 17th minute that the South Americans threatened for the first time.
Messi picked off Alejandro Gomez on the left, but the winger hit his shot high and wide.
There was little movement in goal for the first half hour, while Australia looked comfortable in possession and forced the first two corners of the match.
But Messi introduced some much-needed dynamism in the 35th minute, slotting in a brace with Nicolas Otamendi on the edge of the penalty area and using his side foot into the bottom corner.
It was his 789th career goal, his 94th in 169 appearances for his country, and his first in the knockout stages of a World Cup.
Argentina comfortably retained control early in the second half and Messi pulled back as he looked poised to score his second of the game.
Australia left a mountain to climb after conceding an unfortunate goal in the 57th minute.
Goalkeeper Matt Ryan mishandled a back-pass and Manchester City forward Álvarez scored his second goal of the tournament.
Argentina were happy to keep the ball, but after substitute Nicolás Tagliafico fired his effort wide, Australia pulled one back with a goal out of nowhere.
Goodwin tried his luck from outside the penalty area and his shot hit Enzo Fernandez and flew into the bottom corner.
Australia came close to an impressive goal in the 80th minute when Dundee United’s Behić forced his way past four defenders inside the area, but Martinez’s tackle in Manchester United’s center half blocked the shot.
Argentina came close to restoring a two-goal lead through Martínez, who hit two shots wide and made a fine save for the third.
But the jubilant Argentine fans held their breath in the closing moments of time when young Australian substitute Garang Cole forced goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to save the winner.