Messi looking to claim Argentina’s 3rd World Cup in last hurrah!
Copa America and Finalissima Champions Argentina were undefeated in qualifying and are ranked 3rd in the world. A once Messi-centric team is now, well, more of a balanced, dangerous team and their fans know it. The demand to watch Argentina is high; with the exception of the World Cup Final, 75% of the most in-demand fixtures (in terms of ticket sales) featured Argentina, in the form of the Albiceleste’s meetings with all of Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Poland. Backtracking on international retirement, Messi may be at his last world cup, as well as Angel Di Maria.
Having reached the final back in 2014, they crashed out in 2018 with their defence particularly vulnerable. Aston Villa’s Martinez, River Plate’s Armani and Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez have now added strength and depth to the goalkeeper and central defender department (just don’t mention Brentford to Martinez), which was an area of weakness 4 years ago. Any team with all-time goal scorer Lionel Messi cannot be discounted and the South Americans should be confident getting through, if not winning the group – former international defender Pablo Zabaleta admits the group “could have been worse”. The Albiceleste were the top seeds in Group C when the draw was made in Doha and they’re unbeaten in over 30 matches – everything points to a world cup winning side. Attacking should be no problem with Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez who has bagged 20 international goals. Ángel Correa had his best season in front of goal for Atletico Madrid in La Liga last season too. Alexis MacAllister has been called up having impressed in the Premier League with Brighton and will compete with Palacios of Leverkusen and Fernandez of Benfica.
Argentina would like to avoid Germany who they have lost out to on 3 consecutive World Cups between 2006 and 2014 but it is France in Group D who they need to avoid and by finishing top of the group, you’d imagine, would be a step towards that.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Well Man City Manager Pep Guardiola is confident of their chances: "Winning the Copa America for any group gives you a feeling of 'we did it' and I’m sure that will help in the World Cup. I have seen little of Scaloni’s team, but they have not lost for a long time and that feeling that you are winning and not losing is going to give you strength." If Argentina can navigate its way out of tricky group in top place, the team will likely face Denmark in the last 16 which are heavily underrated. If they oust the Danes, they could be looking at the Dutch in the quarters and Brazil in the semi-finals. Argentina may have timed their run just about right and will look to claim their third World Cup crown.
Verdict: Group C Winners (9 points) and World Cup Winners
Manager: Lionel Scaloni (Argentina) The Argentinian only retired himself 7 years ago from Atalanta but in 2016, Scaloni started his coaching career as an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli, first at Sevilla and then again at Argentina. After 2018’s World Cup disappointment, Scaloni found himself in the manager hot seat. Scaloni prefers a 4-3-3 formation and places heavy focus on player psychology. It is a strategy that has served him well achieving a 61% win rate overall and two international titles (and nominated for the best FIFA coach to boot).
Key players: Although his powers may be diminishing by his high standards (he scored 73 goals in one season!), Lionel Messi will still likely be the difference between them and the top sides by adding to the 86 goals he has got for his country. Having captured the Copa America title and being only one game away from World Cup glory in 2014, Messi will be determined to bring the missing trophy to his home country and his cabinet. One for the future includes Manchester United’s Alejandro Garnacho who at 17 made his debut against Chelsea in the Premier League back in April. Of the current crop Rodrigo De Paul from Atletico Madrid is capable of driving Argentina forward in attacking phases by creating space for himself in midfield.
Mexico looking to find lost spark…
Ah Mexico, hosts of two Word Cups and a regular World Cup staple. Is it really a World Cup without Mexico? Mexico are ranked 13th in the world at the time of writing but have never bettered the last 16 since the 1994 World Cup. They have reached the Quarter Finals in the tournaments they hosted in 1970 & 1986 but reaching that stage again is going to require some luck or a Golden generation – and that’s not what they have at the moment. Mexico had done the hard work in 2018, beating 2014 World Champions Germany, getting the better of South Korea but then succumbed to a devastating loss against Sweden. That set-up a last-16 tie with Brazil which proved one hurdle too much.
Getting out of the group stage will be complex but they still have players playing at a high level. Raul Jimenez is playing in the Premier League with Wolves having recovered from a devastating head injury (it took Jimenez eight months to recover from fracturing his skull). Prior to that injury he was touted as a potential Champions League striker. Porto’s Corona is ruled out of the World Cup which is a blow, but Napoli’s Lozano and Atletico’s Herrera will form a strong and reliable midfield. Supporting Jimenez upfront will be Guadalajara’s Alexis Vega and Club America’s Henry Martin who contributed 2 goals apiece this qualifying campaign. Goalkeeper Ochoa has performed strongly at previous World Cups (and remains a fan favourite); his experience will be important once again this time around. Ajax’s defensive player Edson Alvarez is highly rated, scoring in the Champions League and already has the Gold Cup and Eredivisie title to his name. Chelsea are rumoured to snap up the player come January. It has been reported that Mexico are half-pinning their hopes of Newcastle United player Santiago Munoz (and no not the fictional player starring in the Goal movie), but the genuine article but the World Cup may come too early for him.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Mexico would fancy themselves against all the teams in their group, but their opponents would say the same. The French and the Danes could await in the last-16 and both sides look far stronger than Mexico at the moment. Getting out of the group stage would represent success, last-16 would be par and anything better than that would look like a spectacular success for El Tri. But that won’t happen this time around – too goal shy.
Verdict: Group stage (4th - 0 points)
Manager: Gerardo Martino (Argentina) – The manager’s health is a concern as he looks to recover from eye surgery and there are rumours of a replacement in the works but that hasn’t come to fruition. If he does make it, he does have World Cup pedigree, taking Paraguay to the Quarter Finals in 2010. He has also managed Argentina and Spanish giants Barcelona. He is not short of silverware; he has won the MLS Cup with Atlanta and Paraguay championship titles with club sides Libertad and Cerro Porteno. He faced scrutiny after recent defeats against USA and Paraguay; the fans conveyed their dismay: "Not just a public enemy, but public enemy No. 1 ... They don't know me, they don't know how I am as a person, if they knew how I am as a person, surely it wouldn't happen."
Key players: Mexico announced they will participate in five friendlies and the Concacaf Nations League, giving players an opportunity to prove themselves so Mexico’s final squad as far from decided. But for now, their key player is Hirving Lozano who plays for Napoli as winger (rumoured to go to Everton). For the national team he has scored 15 goals and he will need to be on goalscoring form if Mexico are going to get out of Group C. 37-year-old Guillermo Ochoa is somewhat of a World Cup legend making man of the match performances regularly at the showpiece – Mexico will need him on top form again this time around.
Lewandowski looking to provide Polish path to glory….
Poland are making their 9th appearance at the World Cup Finals. They’ve finished 3rd twice in 1874 and 1982. They didn’t qualify in 2010, or in 2014 but did so in 2018 but didn’t make it out the group stage. Robert Lewandowski is synonymous with the Poland national team, and he will be determined to go on a better run this time around. With an out of sorts Mexico outfit, outsiders Saudi Arabia and an Argentina side not familiar with European opposition, Poland have to fancy their chances this time around. Poland booked their spot at the World Cup with a fine 2-0 win over Sweden with much thanks attributed to Wojech Szczesny who made robust saves against dangerous threat Emil Forsberg. Piotr Zieliński plays for Serie A outfit Napoli as a central/attacking midfielder, is pivotal for Poland (8 goals overall) and has already scored in the Champions League this season (running riot against Liverpool in the process) – Bayern Munich are keeping tabs on the playmaker. They have recently added Aston Villa defender Matty Cash to their squad who regularly drives forward on the right-hand side providing both assists and goals alike. Bednarek is also a useful defender and another goal threat from the back (4 goals last season). Krzysztof Piątek plays for Salernitana scoring against Juventus this season and has bagged 10 goals for Poland already – another option for manager Michniewicz.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Poland were poor 4 years ago in Russia – they don’t look to be the same side now. Although not a completely star-studded side, they do have enough quality on the pitch to suggest they should come out on top against Saudi Arabia and Mexico. They have a ‘free hit’ against Argentina, get that right and the tournament could open up for them. Qualifying from the group is more than plausible but finishing second could mean a meeting with current World Champions France (not that current World Champions have a good record in the following tournament). And perhaps in that boldest of predictions they will make it past them too.
Verdict: Group C runners-up (2nd – 6 points) Last 16
Manager: Czesław Michniewicz (Poland) – One of the newest managers on the world stage, Czeslaw only got the job as recently as January having managed various Polish club sides, most recently Legia Warsaw. Getting a bye past Russia was fortuitous (and deserved), but navigating past Sweden was a good start to life as the national team coach. Upon announcement of the draw, the manager couldn’t contain his excitement: “It's a very interesting group! We are humble but we are not afraid of anyone.”
Key players: Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? Robert Lewandowski is the talisman and has been a Bayern Munich and Champions League stalwart and now running riot in La Liga for Barcelona. He has made well over 120 appearances for the national team, scoring a prolific 75 goals. He became the country’s top goal scorer back in 2017 and isn’t bad in the air either; Lewandowski is third on the list for most headed goals in the 21st century with 80 headers, out of which 18 of them were deemed as match-winners. In 2020, Lewandowski won the Best FIFA Men's Player Award (retained in 2021) and the UEFA Men's Player of the Year Award. He has scored over 300 goals in the Bundesliga (second-highest goal scorer of all time in Bundesliga, behind only Gerd Müller's 365 Bundesliga goals) – the accolades probably won’t stop now. He will have to be at his best if Poland are to progress deep into the tournament. Piotr Zieliński may be the key into ensuring the main man doesn’t need to do it all on his own.
Will there be memorable Arabian nights in first Middle Eastern World Cup?
This will be Saudi Arabia’s 6th World Cup, but they have only made it out of the group stage once back in 1994 having beaten Belgium and Morocco. The Green Falcons all ply their trade in the domestic Saudi-Pro league. Last time out in 2018 they were thrashed by the hosts 5-0 to Russia, although they did finish with a win against Mo Salah’s Egypt, their first win in a World Cup since 1994. In the past they’ve been on the wrong end of some heavy score lines including losing 4-0 to Ukraine in 2006, 8-0 to Germany in 2002 and 4-0 to France back in 1998. But this time could be different; their manager Hervé Renard, the only coach ever to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries, has made them a far more stubborn outfit where they have only conceded a single goal in their latest round of qualification. Their credentials will be tested against one of the World Cup favourites, Argentina as well against Lewandowski’s Poland and Raul Jimenez’s Mexico. You may think this will be as close to a local World Cup as you’re going to get for Saudi Arabia as it borders Qatar (diplomatic relations were restored between Qatar and four Arab states including Saudi Arabia that imposed an embargo against it for three years, so relations are now cordial). If not, they may not have to wait long before having the chance to host the World Cup itself in 2030 (alongside Egypt and Greece in the expanded format).
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
It’s close to a home tournament and you have to feel if they don’t do something in this tournament, they never will. Outdoing Argentina, Poland and Mexico may be a big ask. It’s hard to make a case but this is a World Cup and usually the continent’s own nations tend to perform better. Ride their luck, keep it tight at the back and expose their rivals on the counter who will be expected to monopolise possession. Mexico perhaps may not look as strong as previous editions of the World Cup, Argentina will have heavy expectations on them, Poland didn’t get out of the group stage last time either. Renard’s tactical nous will be needed in earnest. The match between Saudi Arabia and Argentina will take place November 22nd at Lusail Stadium in the first round of the World Cup.
Verdict: Group stage (3rd - 3 points)
Manager: Hervé Renard (France) - The Falcon’s manager is Herve Renard, winner of 2 AFCON championships (Zambia and Ivory Coast). He has had less success at club level suffering relegation at French side Sochaux and only achieving 13 points in 13 games with Lille. He later took Morocco to the 2018 World Cup but left after a disappointing Afcon Championship in 2019. So now onto Saudi Arabia who qualified behind Japan for the 2022 World Cup and will have Ecuador and USA to face in World Cup warm-ups.
Key players: Salem Al Dawsari is a Saudi Arabian professional footballer who plays as a Left Midfielder for Al Hilal in the Saudi Professional League. Al Dawsari has 17 goals for his country and scored in the country’s last world cup win against Egypt in 2018. Alongside Salem Al-Dawsari, Fahad Al-Muwallad will be important, providing spark and creativity in attack. Another man who is all but guaranteed a place on the plane is Mohammed Al-Owais, who plays for Al Hilal. Experience will be provided by the likes of Yasser Al-Shahrani and Salman Al-Faraj, who have won 68 and 67 caps respectively. Saleh Al-Shehri of Al-Hilal has scored eight goals in 16 appearances for his country, while Mohammed Al-Breik has the right-back spot nailed down. These players are relative unknowns to the rest of the footballing world which makes them an unknown quantity – that could play to their advantage.