Australia‘s players can’t hide their admiration for Lionel Messi as they prepare to take on Argentina in the round of 16, but they believe they have what it takes to stun the South American heavyweights.
Their reward for this, however, is one of the most daunting tasks in football right now: a date with an in-form Argentina at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Saturday evening.
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Propelled by a masterful performance from their talisman, La Albiceleste handily accounted for Poland in their final group game on Wednesday.
Messi may have had a penalty saved and didn’t play a direct hand in either of his side’s goals at 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 dribbles in a World Cup match. He also surpassed Maradona for most games played at a World Cup with 22.
“I always loved Messi and I think he’s the greatest to ever play the game,” defender Milos Degenek said. “[But] it’s not an honour to play against him because he’s just a human, as we all are.
“It’s an honour to be in the round of 16 of a World Cup. That’s the honour in itself. Whether we played Argentina or we would have played against Poland, it still would have been an honour to represent Australia in the round of 16 of a World Cup.”
Mat Leckie, whose goal saw the Socceroos past the Danes, became the first Victorian to ever score at a World Cup on Wednesday and ensured that he, alongside Maty Ryan, will break Australia’s all time appearance record at men’s World Cups against the Argentines.
And with so few neutrals predicting anything less than an Argentine procession, he contends that his side have little to lose.
“It’s a 90-minute game, maybe 120. And it’s a knockout game,” Leckie said. ‘Because no one expects us to be here, we [can] throw everything at them and there’s no pressure for us.
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“I said to all the boys leading into this tournament, I believe you’re gonna 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 no pressure, we just need to enjoy the moment and enjoy the occasion. No one expects us to win. So let’s shock the world.
“It’s gonna be a difficult game, playing against probably the best footballer ever to grace the game. [But] it’s 11 against 11. There’s not 11 Messis, there’s one.”
Both Argentina and Australia recovered from opening day defeats to advance to the round of 16. However, while Argentina’s 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia was hardly ideal, it was significantly less damaging than the Socceroos’ 4-1 hammering at the hands of France.
Coach Graham Arnold quickly moved to re-cast that game as a “friendly” and learning experience, and Degenek believes that his side has taken some wisdom from it that can be implemented on Saturday.
“We’ve learned a lot from the France game. I think we showed them a bit [too much] respect,” Degenek said. “This game in two days’ time will be a completely different game.
“France plays one way, Argentina will play a different way. It’s two completely different styles of football and you can’t really just take all that from one game and move into another game.
“But you can take some positives out of that and move into this game against Argentina. But France doesn’t have that one guy that we all know who Argentina has. He’s capable of everything.
“Unfortunately, I am a big fan of his, but I’d love to win the World Cup probably more than [to see] him to win the World Cup.”