Australia’s players can’t hide their admiration for Lionel Messi as they prepare to face Argentina in the last 16, but they believe they have what it takes to stun the South American heavyweights.
Australia upset Denmark 1-0 on Wednesday night to punch their tickets to the knockout stages of the World Cup, joining Group D winners France in the last 16 for the first time since 2006.
Their reward for this, however, is one of the most daunting tasks in football right now: a date with an informed Argentina at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday night.
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Propelled by a masterful performance from their talisman, La Albiceleste stood in handy for Poland in their final group game on Wednesday.
Messi may have had a penalty saved and did not play directly in any of his team’s goals at the Stadium 974, but he was otherwise sublime, breaking a record previously held by Diego Maradona as the oldest player to create 5-plus chances and complete 5- plus dribbling in a World Cup match. He also surpassed Maradona for most matches played at a World Cup with 22.
“I’ve always loved Messi and I think he’s the best to ever play the game,” defender Milos Degenek said. “[But] it is not an honor to play against him because he is only human, as we all are.
“It’s an honor to be in the last 16 of a World Cup. That’s an honor in itself. Whether we played Argentina or we’d play Poland, it would still be an honor to represent Australia in the last 16. a world championship.”
Mat Leckie, whose goal saw the Socceroos past the Danes, became the first Victorian ever to score in a World Cup on Wednesday and ensured he, along with Maty Ryan, will break Australia’s men’s World Cup record against the Argentines.
And with so few neutrals predicting anything less than an Argentine procession, he claims his side have little to lose.
“It’s a 90-minute fight, maybe 120. And it’s a knockout fight,” Leckie said. “Because no one expects us to be here, we [can] throw everything at them and there is no pressure for us.
Rob Dawson reacts to Australia’s 1-0 win over Denmark and talks about their chances in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
“I said to all the boys leading into this tournament, I think you’re going to get the best out of yourself [when you] do what you’ve done your whole career to get here and express yourself.
“We have no pressure, we just need to enjoy the moment and enjoy the occasion. Nobody expects us to win. So let’s shock the world.
“It’s going to be a difficult game, playing against probably the best footballer ever to grace the game. [But] it’s 11 against 11. It’s not 11 Messis, it’s one.”
Both Argentina and Australia recovered from opening day losses to progress to the last 16. But while Argentina’s 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia was hardly ideal, it was considerably less damaging than the Socceroos’ 4-1 hammering at the hands of France.
Coach Graham Arnold moved quickly to re-cast that game as a “friendly” and learning experience, and Degenek believes his side have taken some wisdom from it that can be implemented on Saturday.
“We learned a lot from the France game. I think we showed them a bit [too much] respect,” Degenek said. “This game in two days will be a completely different game.
“France play one way, Argentina will play another way. It’s two completely different styles of football and you can’t really just take all that from one game and go into another game.
“But you can take something positive out of it going into this game against Argentina. But France don’t have the one guy that we all know Argentina have. He’s capable of everything.
“Unfortunately, I’m a big fan of his, but I’d like to win the World Cup more than that [to see] him to win the World Cup.”