Lionel Messi knows he has one last shot at winning the World Cup with Argentina, who will arrive in Qatar unbeaten in 35 matches after an impressive qualifying campaign and last year’s Copa America triumph in Brazil.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is set to grace his fifth and final World Cup, four years on from Argentina’s turbulent campaign in Russia which ended in the last 16.
Lionel Scaloni, an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli in 2018, has since taken over the top job and fostered genuine belief Argentina can win a third World Cup that narrowly eluded them after an extra-time defeat by Germany in the final eight years ago.
“We are eager, we are going to fight, we are not afraid of anyone because we are ready to play against anyone,” Messi told Directv Sports last month.
“I think the first game is very important because starting with a win gives you peace of mind.”
Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by debutants Iceland as Messi missed a penalty in their opening match in Russia, setting the tone for a disastrous tournament.
They will be heavily favoured to top Group C ahead of Mexico and Poland. Their first game is against Saudi Arabia — led by two-time Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach Herve Renard — who are determined not to simply make up the numbers.
Reaching the knockout phase has not been an issue for Mexico, who stunned then holders Germany in the first round in Russia only to run into Brazil and suffer their seventh successive last-16 exit.
Veteran midfielder Andres Guardado is set to join Messi by appearing at a fifth World Cup. His final debut came in a last-16 loss to Argentina in the 2006 edition and he shares the record for most Mexico caps with 177 alongside the legendary Claudio Suarez.
Mexico were again knocked out at the same stage by the same opponents four years later, but El Tri will hope with the insight of Gerardo Martino, former Argentina and Barcelona coach, they can overcome what has become an all too familiar obstacle.
– Lewandowski ‘hurt’ by 2018 failure –
For a player who has sent goalscoring records tumbling, Robert Lewandowski has yet to make his mark at a World Cup, and remains undoubtedly the key to Poland’s destiny.
The 34-year-old scored nine times in as many outings as Poland punched their ticket to Qatar, taking his haul to 25 goals in 19 games across the last two World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Poland bowed out meekly in the group stage in 2018 and it remains a sore point for Lewandowski. “That was one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” he told the FIFA website. “I didn’t have any chances, I didn’t score a single goal and that still hurts.”
The Barcelona forward, Poland’s captain and all-time top scorer, will have to lead from the front if his country is to make the knockout phase for the first time since 1986.
Lewandowski, who was controversially beaten to last year’s Ballon d’Or by Messi, eagerly awaits the chance to face the Argentine, and perhaps end his World Cup dreams once and for all.
“With an absolute legend like Leo Messi as their figurehead, there’s no doubt that’ll be our toughest match. It’ll be great to take on such a great side with such talented players,” he said.