DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — It was billed as a clash between two of the greatest strikers in the world: Lionel Messi vs Robert Lewandowski.
And as Argentina beat Poland 2-0 to secure top spot in Group C and a place in the World Cup knockout phase, to play Australia, there was only one winner.
For once, Messi was not the Albiceleste's match-winner — he even missed a first-half penalty — but Argentina still danced to the beat of his drum.
Lewandowski, for his part, never got into the game, a mirror image of his strangely subdued and passive teammates, who sat back from the first whistle and rarely tested Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez.
At one point deep into stoppage time, the two captains and stars of their teams went face-to-face, with Messi on the ball.
The rest of his performance was insipid, but this time at least Lewandowski showed dogged determination not to be beaten by Messi, and fouled him.
Despite the chastening evening, there was some solace for the Polish star — Mexico's 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in the other match in Group C meant Poland sneaked into the last 16 as runners-up on goal difference.
They will face defending champions France next, a daunting task.
Messi and Lewandowski were both all smiles at the end and embraced warmly.
The Argentine easily had the upper hand in a game the South Americans dominated from start to finish and was involved in the most important — and contentious — moment of the opening 45 minutes.
Messi was adjudged to have been fouled by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny when challenging for a header in the area.
The referee initially did not award the spot kick but changed his mind after a VAR intervention, much to the delight of the massed ranks of Argentina fans, and the surprise of many.
Szczesny dived to his left and batted away Messi's spot kick with a huge right paw.
It was Messi's 31st missed penalty.
It was not Messi's best or most influential evening, but he won this battle hands down and his World Cup dream lives on.