By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Rest easy, soccer fans. Lionel Messi will grace the World Cup stage at least one more time.
The Argentina great had a penalty saved but his team still beat Poland 2-0 Wednesday after second-half goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez and advanced to the last 16.
After opening the World Cup with a shocking 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in one of biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, Argentina wound up finishing in first place in Group C and will next play Australia — a surprise qualifier for the knockout stage.
Messi rolls into Saturday’s game suddenly in a strong position in likely his final World Cup.
“Now another World Cup begins.” Messi said, “and hopefully we can continue to do what we did today.”
As for Poland, it was ultimately a happy night, too, because the team went through as the group’s second-place team — on goal difference ahead of Mexico — and will next play defending champion France.
Messi ended up relieved after failing to score a penalty for the second straight World Cup. It was awarded after he was hit in the face by the flailing hand of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made amends by diving to his left to block Messi’s kick in the 39th minute.
“I’m upset that I missed the penalty, but the team came back stronger after my error,” he said.
A largely pro-Argentina crowd, waving flags and scarfs and beating drums behind both goals, had been sweeping Messi and his team along at the 44,000-seat Stadium 974 and they didn’t stop after the penalty. Within seconds, a chant of “MESSI! MESSI!” immediately reverberated around the venue in a bid to keep their idol’s head high.
And the roars were even louder at the start of the second half, first after Mac Allister’s goal — a scruffy finish from Nahuel Molina’s cut-back from the right — in the first minute and soon after as news filtered through that Mexico had taken the lead against Saudi Arabia, which started the day in third place.
Playing an Argentine-record 22nd World Cup game, Messi never stopped surging forward and he was a menace all game to Poland with his dribbling ability and vision. One 40-meter solo run saw him weave past three opponents, drift past another only to miskick as he took aim.
The match was billed as a head-to-head between Messi and Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, perhaps the best center forward in the world, but it proved to be a mismatch.
“If Messi played with us and Robert played for Argentina, Robert would have scored five goals,” Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said. “Robert needs to be helped and the match was only played in our half.”
Messi wasn’t involved in either goal, though. For the second, Enzo Fernandez scooped a pass to Alvarez — starting ahead of regular striker Lautaro Martinez — and he took one touch before curling his shot into the top corner in the 67th minute.
Things couldn’t have gone better for Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who made more bold changes in bringing in Alvarez, Fernandez and Molina and seeing them play a part in the goals. Mac Allister, meanwhile, didn’t start against Saudi Arabia and has added energy in midfield in the two games since.
Suddenly, Argentina looks more like the team which entered the World Cup on a 36-match unbeaten run and as one of the tournament favorites, a year after winning the Copa America.
“We wanted to make amends for that Saudi Arabia game because we knew we could play better,” Mac Allister said. “We’ve managed to find that calm we needed … we played well collectively and it fills us with confidence.”
The final whistle blew with Poland players still unsure if they were advancing, given the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game was ongoing. At one stage, Poland and Mexico were only separated by the number of yellow cards they had collected in the group stage — Poland had five compared to Mexico’s seven — and Michniewicz was desperately urging his team to not give away fouls in the final minutes.
A stoppage-time goal by the Saudis meant their match finished 2-1 in favor of Mexico, whose goal difference was inferior by one to Poland.
Upon confirmation they had advanced, Poland’s players squirted water from their bottles in the middle of the field and jumped up and down.
“Sometimes,” Michniewicz said, “losses can be bittersweet.”
Scaloni criticized a schedule that will see Argentina have to play within three days of beating Poland. “We don’t want to be euphoric because I think it’s crazy, these conditions,” he said.
Szczesny has now saved penalties in back-to-back games, having kept out Saudi Arabia forward Salem Aldawsari’s spot kick in the 2-0 win on Friday.