Bookings, bets, Mexico misery and Poland’s PM on phone – the finale to Group C

Find us a more dramatic finale to a World Cup group — we dare you.

The last 30 minutes of Group C in Qatar, played simultaneously in two stadiums on Wednesday, will take some beating.

Argentina, despite Lionel Messi having a penalty saved last night and that shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening game last Tuesday, brushed aside Poland 2-0 to finish as group winners.

That was serene progress for Messi and his team-mates considering what Poland and Mexico were putting their fans through.

Poland eventually progressed as runners-up on goal difference but only after Saudi Arabia’s late goal to halve a 2-0 deficit against Mexico — until then, qualification for the last 16 was going to be decided on bookings accumulated across the three group games, with points, goals scored and head-to-head record failing to separate the Poles and Mexicans.

For a 25-minute period in the second halves of Poland vs Argentina and Saudi Arabia vs Mexico, Poland were going through because they had been better behaved than Mexico — picking up two fewer bookings. Had Poland received two more cautions against Argentina, it would have made it 7-7 between them and Mexico in the yellow-card stakes.

Finish level there too, and astonishingly it would have been the drawing of lots that decided who went through in second place. Instead, Mexico fell agonizingly short, failing to reach the World Cup’s round of 16 for the first time in 44 years.

And we’ve not even mentioned Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny losing a mid-match bet with Messi yet…

Saudi Arabia 1 Mexico 2

An hour before kick-off, Doha’s Lusail Stadium was reverberating.

The nearly 90,000 fans in attendance had no idea what was to come. One Spanish journalist said: “There’s always drama at a Mexico game.” He was not wrong.

El Tri’s massive traveling support were boisterous from the beginning, in spite of the task at hand: Mexico needed to win by a 3-0 scoreline against Saudi Arabia and hope Argentina defeated Poland handily.

Mexico coach Tata Martino — an Argentinian, to add another layer of intrigue — rang the changes and went back to his customary 4-2-3-1 formation. Orbelin Pineda, an inventive playmaker who hadn’t played in either of the first two group matches, was a key addition; he was everywhere in the first half. Alexis Vega, Hirving Lozano and Pineda all made themselves a nuisance too, but a goal would not come.

Mexico’s elimination was inching closer with the score 0-0 at the break. Then the drama really started…

In the 47th minute, defender Cesar Montes ran to the near post and cleverly flicked Luis Chavez’s corner across the Saudi goal for Henry Martin to finish from close range, sending Mexico’s fans into delirium.

Martin scores from close range to put Mexico ahead (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Six minutes later, it was pandemonium as Chavez slammed home a stunning free kick from 25 yards.

Mexico needed one more goal to pull off their miracle and thought they had it when Lozano broke through and slotted a cool finish past a helpless Mohammed Al-Owais.

But the offside flag was up.

Chavez had another free kick saved by Al-Owais before a Pineda shot went agonizingly wide.

News was beginning to circulate among the crowd that Argentina were 2-0 up through goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez.

A 30km (18 mile) drive south at Stadium 974, Szczesny had saved a Messi penalty near the end of the first half.

If Mexico couldn’t score a third goal, surely Argentina would — handing the Mexicans a historic favor.

With both games at 2-0, the Group C table was in a peculiar position; Poland and Mexico were level on points, goals scored and, having drawn 0-0 earlier in the group, had the same head-to-head record. So suddenly the teams’ disciplinary records came into play — at that point, Poland had four yellow cards (and later picked up another) in their three matches compared to Mexico’s seven, which gave the Poles the advantage if the two scorelines remained the same.

Mexico knew the onus was on them to score and make bookings irrelevant.

Martino explained later: “We went for the third goal. We put two centre-forwards on. We knew Poland had fewer yellow cards and we were out (as things stood). We had assessed that before the game, because we picked up so many cards in the Argentina game (four).”

Asked if Mexico’s bench was informing the players on the pitch about the Argentina-Poland score, Pineda said: “They were motivating us the entire time to get forward, that there was still a possibility to fight for a spot at the top of the group . They were always behind us.”

Right-back Kevin Alvarez entered the game in the 86th minute — having witnessed the mayhem taking place on the touchline first.

“It was very intense,” Alvarez said. “There was a lot of aggression because we needed one more goal and that’s because we didn’t put away our chances in the first half. We heard from the bench that (Argentina) were up 1-0 and then 2-0, so we knew we only needed one goal.

“We didn’t do it, though.”

With four minutes left to go, winger Uriel Antuna was played in and converted the chance, but the exuberant celebrations were, again, short-lived.

Antuna’s goal is ruled out (Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The flag was up — and so too were Mexico’s chances of staying in the World Cup.

Saudi Arabia made it 2-1 in added time. Argentina could not score a third. It was a valiant effort by Martino’s men but it was not enough.

An exhausted Martino knew what was coming. The questions in the press conference were unremittingly critical.

“I am the man responsible for this disappointment, this source of great sadness, I assume all responsibility for this huge failure,” the 60-year-old said. “It’s been eight World Cups that this hasn’t happened. I have no reason to think the future will be any different (for me).

“My contract expired on the final whistle.”

A crestfallen Martin followed Alvarez through the mixed zone. He was emotional, like after the loss to Argentina on Saturday.

Martin said he did not know anything about the score of the other match until he came off the field in the 77th minute, to be replaced by Raul Jimenez.

“I mean, just imagine for yourself,” Martin said. “We scored our second goal in the 53rd/55th minute. We only had to score one more. We had a lot of time left to play. We were crashing their goal. I was convinced the third goal would come.”

Martin paused and held back tears. “You’re left with that bitter taste in your mouth that we created chances, we went for it. We were right there… we fell short. It’s hard but that’s what it is. We’re not going to hide from it. I won’t hide from this. We didn’t do what we were expected to do — what we imagined doing. And yes, we didn’t do enough.”

Chavez confirmed that the players who were not on the sideline were not aware of the score in the other game.

“Nobody told us anything until the end when we saw something on the screen,” Chavez said. “It didn’t matter. We needed another goal to advance.”

Poland 0 Argentina 2

The phone of Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz kept ringing. He could not ignore it any longer.

“Is that it?” he asked the gathered reporters. “It’s really late. The prime minister is calling and I can’t answer.”

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s head of state, wanted to congratulate him on the team qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.

He presumably had the same question as those journalists sat in the reclaimed shipping container that serves as a press conference room at Stadium 974: how did you guide Poland through what felt like a tightrope walk rather than a football game?

Two-nil down to Argentina and knowing Mexico were 2-0 up against Saudi Arabia, Michniewicz became aware Poland’s best chance of making the round of 16 was via the tournament’s fair-play rules. His players had to show self-restraint.

“We had an agreement that me and the technical director were the only ones who could watch the Saudi Arabia-Mexico match,” Michniewicz revealed.

But the players were aware of what was going on at the Lusail.

Poland could not afford to be shown two more yellows. All of a sudden, the most concerning man on the pitch for Poland wasn’t so much Messi as the referee, Danny Makkelie.

“We were afraid that maybe one of the players would get a card,” Michniewicz said.

In hindsight, Poland got a little lucky earlier in the game.

Their goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny did not receive a yellow card when Makkelie awarded a penalty against him for catching Messi in the face with his hand as both went for a cross. Szczesny saved Messi’s ensuing spot-kick and kept the game goalless.

This was deemed a penalty (Photo: Getty Images)

Fair play wasn’t on his mind then. Winning a wager was instead. “We (Szczesny and Messi) spoke before the penalty — I told him I can bet him €100 that he (the referee) wasn’t going to give it,” Szczesny said.

“So I’ve lost a bet against Messi. I don’t know if that’s allowed at the World Cup — I’m probably going to get banned for it but I don’t care right now. And I’m not going to pay him either! He doesn’t care about €100, come on.”

But once Mac Allister and Alvarez scored, bookings mattered.

“I told the players to avoid stupid cards,” Michniewicz said.

Special instructions were passed on.

“We told them not to talk to the referee. Not to pull shirts,” Michniewicz added.

But this was Argentina they were playing against. Every time Messi picked up the ball and ran at the Poland defense, Michniewicz’s players couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong.

The Poland players became wary of picking up bookings, not easy when playing against Messi (Photo: David Ramos – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Argentina had 73.3 percent possession. They tried and provoked Poland with their passes. One act of clumsiness, one weary challenge could be enough to send Poland home. Michniewicz paced his technical area, mopping his wrinkled brow, tension writ large across his face.

When one of his most experienced players, Grzegorz Krychowiak, now on 97 caps, lost man of the match Mac Allister on 78 minutes, chased him down, tugged his shirt, thought better of it, tackled him anyway and protested that he got the ball , Michniewicz’s heart — and those of 38 million Poles — were in their mouths.

“My heart dropped a bit,” Michniewicz said.

Makkelie reached into his pocket and flashed a yellow card. Michniewicz did not hesitate in reacting. Animatedly he called Krychowiak over and had a word. He stayed on for another five minutes but Michniewicz got more and more nervous. Poland couldn’t risk a red card. He took Krychowiak off and put on the striker Krzysztof Piatek.

Eight minutes of normal time remained and Poland knew there would be an endless amount of stoppage time added. It’s been a feature of this World Cup and when the fourth official hoisted up his board the number in lights on it was six — not as bad as in some games here, but still an eternity to the Poles.

“It was terrible, awful and wonderful,” Szczesny shook his head, still incredulous.

Argentina kept coming. They kept looking for Messi and Poland fans watched through their fingers in terror as Robert Lewandowski and a team-mate came close to sandwiching Messi in the 94th minute.

Luckily, Lewandowski had the presence of mind to pull out of the challenge in the nick of time and avoid possible sanction.

“Yeah, it was a long game; it lasted about five hours for me, but we got through,” Szczesny said. “I don’t care how we did it. We were ugly at times, probably for about 95 minutes of the game, but it was the result that gave us the qualification and we’re delighted.”

Michniewicz agreed “it wasn’t the nicest football”. But I know what?

After a nerve-racking half hour, Poland aren’t packing their bags for a flight back to Warsaw after all. Instead, they are looking forward to a last-16 clash with defending World Cup champions France on Sunday.

They are staying in Qatar and the prime minister is on the line.

We should let Michniewicz take the call.

(Additional contributors: James Horncastle, Matt Slater)

(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: John Bradford)


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