Emiliano Martinez came to the rescue for Argentina on a remarkable night of drama by saving two Netherlands penalties in the shootout to send his country through to the World Cup semi-finals.
The Aston Villa goalkeeper was barely tested for the best part of 90 minutes as Argentina swept into a two-goal lead before substitute Wout Weghorst engineered an incredible Dutch fightback in the quarter-final.
Argentina were stunned as Weghorst equalised in the 11th minute of added time, forcing an extra 30 minutes to the astonishment of the 88,235 in attendance at Lusail Stadium — nearly all of those rooting for Lionel Messi and his teammates.
But Martinez seized his opportunity to be the hero just when it looked as if Argentina were set to face more World Cup agony, flying to his right to palm away Virgil van Dijk’s opening effort from the spot.
After Messi, who had doubled Argentina’s lead during the game with a penalty, coolly rolled home his team’s first attempt, Martinez flung himself to his left to deny Steven Berghuis.
Enzo Fernandez drilled wide with the chance to win it for Argentina, but Lautaro Martinez made no mistake with their following kick, setting up a clash with 2018 runners-up Croatia.
“I feel the emotion. What I do, I do for 45 million (Argentinians) who are going through a bad economic crisis,” said Martinez.
“Giving joy to people is the best thing that happens to me at the moment.
“The guys were tired, I felt they needed help but I wasn’t able to do anything. Thankfully, I was able to do it later by saving two penalties.”
The win not only kept alive Messi’s dream of finally getting his hands on the World Cup trophy, but came just hours after Argentina’s great rivals Brazil crashed out of the tournament on penalties to the Croatians.
– Copa starring role –
At 35, Messi knows this will be his fifth and final World Cup — and a winner’s medal would burnish his legacy as one of football’s greatest ever players, placing him right alongside compatriot Diego Maradona and Pele.
But it could all have been over had it not been for Martinez, who also played a starring role in the 2021 Copa America triumph, which ended Argentina’s 28-year title drought.
Martinez saved three attempts in a semi-final shootout victory over Colombia before being named goalkeeper of the tournament after keeping a clean sheet in the 1-0 win against hosts Brazil in the final.
“We knew as he’d done against Colombia he could save some penalties,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni.
Martinez was named goalkeeper of the tournament, but it has been a long and winding road to the top for a player who spent 10 years at Arsenal before finally finding a place to call home.
He conceded five goals on his second appearance for the Gunners in the League Cup, a match best remembered for Arsenal’s comeback from four goals down at Reading in a 7-5 win.
Martinez’s time at the Gunners was mostly spent on loan in the English lower leagues, and he looked destined for a career as a journeyman before fellow Premier League club Aston Villa bought him for a reported £20 million ($24.5 million) in September 2020.
He became Villa’s starting keeper right away and by the end of that season he had emerged as first choice for Argentina, making his debut 10 years after his first call-up.
Over the past year he has entrenched himself as Argentina’s undisputed number one, a reliable presence the Albiceleste were sorely missing four years ago in Russia — and one they hope can lead them to a third World Cup crown.