Rocked by a stunning upset defeat against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Argentina faced Mexico knowing that a defeat would send them crashing out of the tournament.
But Messi breathed fresh life into Argentina’s campaign with his eighth World Cup goal in his fifth appearance in the finals.
The 35-year-old maestro, desperate to crown his glittering career by lifting football’s greatest prize, rifled home a low shot on 64 minutes to put Argentina en route to victory.
Rising star Enzo Fernandez made the game safe with a magical curling strike in the 87th minute, sparking wild celebrations amongst Argentina fans at the glittering Lusail Stadium.
An Argentinian victory on Wednesday against Poland ‒ who were 2-0 winners over Saudi Arabia earlier Saturday ‒ will carry the South American champions into the knockout rounds from Group C.
“We knew that today we had to win, that another World Cup was starting for us, and we knew how to do it,” Messi said.
Elsewhere, France became the first team to reach the last 16 after two goals from star striker Mbappe secured a 2-1 victory over Denmark.
Mbappe, one of the heroes of France’s march to the 2018 World Cup title, ensured Les Bleus would be the first team into the knockout rounds after popping up with an 86th-minute winner to break Danish hearts at Stadium 974 in Doha.
The win all but guarantees France will enter the last 16 as winners of Group D heading into their final game against Tunisia on Wednesday.
“For us, it’s ideal, we have six points so we’re sure to qualify after two matches,” France coach Didier Deschamps said.
“We’ll appreciate that before the next match in four days. It brings tranquility and the assurance that we qualify.”
Mbappe had fired France into the lead on 61 minutes after Denmark’s defence finally buckled following wave after wave of French pressure.
However Andreas Christensen jolted France with a 68th minute equaliser before Mbappe’s late show sealed all three points.
Earlier Saturday, Poland star Robert Lewandowski finally broke his World Cup scoring duck in a clinical win over Saudi Arabia.
It was a World Cup reality check for the Saudis following their stunning win over Argentina.
“The importance of the goal and how I scored it made all my dreams from childhood come true,” said Lewandowski, who had missed a penalty in Poland’s opening 0-0 draw with Mexico on Tuesday.
The 34-year-old was overcome with emotion having capitalised on a blunder by midfielder Abdulelah Al-Malki.
“I think the older I get the more emotional I get,” Lewandowski said. “I’m aware it might be my last World Cup and I wanted to be able to say that I’ve played and scored at World Cups.
“The result is most important, but getting both is great.”
Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was the hero for Poland, however, producing a stunning double save in the first half.
He first denied Salem Al-Dawsari from the penalty spot, then made a stunning stop to keep out the rebound.
In other games on Saturday, Australia defeated Tunisia 1-0, recovering from a chastening opening defeat against champions France to keep their hopes alive.
Striker Mitch Duke scored the only goal of a tight game with a clever header in the first half and Australia desperately held on to silence Tunisia’s vociferous fans.
The Socceroos sit second in Group D with three points from two games, with a game to come against Denmark.
With Messi throwing Argentina a lifeline on Saturday, all eyes on Sunday will now be on Germany in a must-win battle with Spain in Group E.
Germany, beaten 2-1 by Japan in a remarkable opening upset, would be eliminated if they lose to the 2010 champions and Japan avoid defeat to Costa Rica.
Germany coach Hansi Flick described the game as his team’s “first final of this World Cup.”
“I am convinced of our ideas,” Flick said. “We will approach the game with courage and belief in our quality.”