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Lionel Messi works his magic, and Argentina’s weight lifts with a win over Mexico

Argentina faces Poland next in Group C play. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

LUSAIL, Qatar — The masses draped in white and sky blue — Argentine supporters who have traveled great distances to bear witness to a possible third World Cup title in three weeks’ time — did not wait for the metro train to reach its terminus at Lusail Stadium on Saturday before starting the party.

Five hours before kickoff, they tied a long banner to the overhead handrails, creating a canopy for boarding passengers. Their songs honored Lionel Messi and the late Diego Maradona, and their uniformed hopping shook the car like a bounce house. Each stop collected new travelers, most wearing the gentle colors of Argentina or the bold green of its formidable foe, Mexico.

All World Cup matches are events. Argentina vs. Mexico, with Messi seeking to avoid an unfathomable group-stage exit for what he says is his final World Cup, with almost 90,000 in an otherworldly stadium? Now, that’s a spectacle.

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It took until the second half for the match to live up to the moment, but when it did, pure Argentine bliss spilled into the night. Messi scored a wonderful goal, La Albiceleste struck again in gorgeous fashion, and after a stunning defeat against Saudi Arabia in its opener, Argentina was back on track with a 2-0 victory.

“We needed this euphoria,” Messi said. After the upset loss, “the days were very long, and we were eager to have the chance to turn it around. It was a critical game. [Winning] was a weight off our shoulders, and we now have peace of mind.”

The victory left Argentina with three points, even with Saudi Arabia and one behind Group C leader Poland. Mexico is stuck with one point entering Wednesday’s finales pitting Argentina vs. Poland and Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico. Two will advance to the round of 16, which has been Mexico’s tournament exit ramp the previous seven World Cups.

Argentina’s anxiety grew through the night. Possession was aplenty, but answers to unlocking the Mexican defense were not.

Then it happened, like a lightning bolt piercing the night and plunging through the giant oval opening above this stadium.

Mexico conceded too much space to Messi in a central position beyond the penalty area. Ángel Di Maria squared the ball to him. Before Hector Herrera could close, Messi unleashed a low, 25-yard shot with meticulous accuracy. Guillermo Ochoa dove to his left, his arm stretched to its limits. It was futile.

Quiet much of the match, Messi all but ended Mexico’s hopes.

“In 30 seconds, he can be very harmful,” Mexican Coach Gerardo Martino said.

Argentine Coach Lionel Scaloni said the first half “wasn’t good by either side. … In the second half, we started to play better. And then, well, you know what happened. Number 10 did what he does best.”

The goal — Messi’s eighth of his World Cup career and 93rd while playing for his country — released the Argentine fans from the grips of almost unbearable tension. A defeat would have ended their team’s chances to advancing to the round of 16 — an implausible outcome when the tournament began with Argentine riding a 36-game unbeaten streak.

“The first half was difficult due to the situation and the need to win,” Messi said. “We couldn’t find spaces. In the second half, we started playing our game and doing what we stand for. … The goal changed the game.”

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Full relief for Argentina came in the 87th minute on a goal of Messi’s quality but scored by Enzo Fernández, a 21-year-old substitute. With a flash of clever footwork to shake off Erick Gutierrez, Fernández set himself up for a 17-yard bid that traveled from near the top corner of the penalty area to the far side-netting for his first international goal.

With his 21st World Cup appearance, Messi tied Maradona for the most in Argentine history. Saturday’s performance came one day after Argentina paid tribute to Maradona on the second anniversary of his death, at age 60. Maradona and Messi go hand in hand in Argentine sports lore, though Messi is still chasing a World Cup trophy that Maradona won in 1986.

Outside the stadium and in the crowd Saturday, fans displayed banners of both men. It was a tribute to Argentina past and present.

For one half, the match failed to live up to expectations. It was intense and, at times, brutal, but the quality of play was subpar and scoring opportunities scarce.

The only notable save came in the 45th minute, when Argentina’s Emiliano Martínez made a soaring save on Alexis Vega’s 26-yard free kick.

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Argentina labored to find rhythm. Messi’s touches were infrequent, his forays corralled before inflicting damage. On set pieces, the crowd buzzed in anticipation each time the little wizard stood over the ball. Mexico, though, coped with his deliveries.

Early in the second half, Messi had a moment after Alexis MacAllister slipped him the ball in a pocket of space. He shifted gears before Gutiérrez brought him down from behind, resulting in a yellow card and free kick from 25 yards. Messi’s effort sailed well off-target.

Mexico lost a group-stage match for just the fourth time in the past 22 outings (10-4-8). Sitting in last place with just one point (and no goals), El Tri will need to defeat Saudi Arabia — possibly by multiple goals — and then hope for help in the Poland-Argentina match.

“As long as there is a chance, we always need to try,” Martino said. “It is very difficult, yes, of course.”

Messi and Argentina still have work to do.

“We can only celebrate for 10 minutes,” Scaloni said.

Streaming back to the metro station, delirious Argentine supporters were sure to celebrate a lot longer.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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