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Argentina vs Mexico: Lionel Messi & Co play ‘first final’

The Albiceleste landed in Doha as firm contender for the title. Now, they risk making a group-stage exit.

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Argentina v Saudi Arabia - Lusail Stadium, Lusail, Qatar - November 22, 2022 Argentina's Lionel Messi REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

831 players, 32 teams and four matches per day – following the football World Cup can get a little overwhelming. For the next month, The Indian Express will cut through the clutter and handpick the biggest storyline of the day every morning


Showcase game
Argentina vs Mexico (Group C)
12.30 am (Sunday), Al Thumama Stadium

Emi Martinez said it the best: “Saturday will be our first World Cup final.”

Those eight words captured Argentina’s aspiration as well as desperation. The Albiceleste landed in Doha as firm contender for the title. Now, they risk making a group-stage exit.

Their shocking defeat to Saudi Arabia in the World Cup opener means Saturday’s (12.30 am Sunday, IST) match against Mexico becomes – as the goalkeeper put it – a virtual final. Another exit and they might as well be on the first flight back home.

The response in Argentina to their beloved team’s humiliating loss was philosophical more than being enraged. But as the magnitude of the result sunk in, there’s been a more cold-hearted analysis of the defeat. They aren’t panicking yet but every move the two Lionels – coach Scaloni and captain Messi – make is being scrutinised.

For instance, when Messi was late to reemerge from the dressing room after the loss, there were concerns – as Argentine football writer Marcela Mora y Araujo noted in the Football Weekly podcast – whether this was the return of the phase where ‘Messi goes into a dark room alone for many days and nobody knows what he’s thinking’. Messi’s relationship with his national team has been such – fraught with sad moments than happier ones.

Then, when he again trained alone, there were concerns over his fitness, El Grapfico reported. Those fears were allayed by Argentina’s team management, who released photos and videos of Messi training.

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The other Lionel has also been under increased observation. Scaloni has said he won’t change his team’s style because it did not work against Saudi. However, the roles of some players – especially in the defence and midfield – are being questioned.

There are suggestions that Scaloni will make a raft of changes to his backline against an opponent that isn’t shy to go on the front foot. Cristian Romero could make way for Lisandro Martinez in the central defence while the two wing-backs, Nahuel Molina and Nicolas Tagliafico could be replaced by Gonzalo Montiel and Marco Acuna respectively, because of Mexico’s threat from wider positions.

There are calls to bench central midfielders Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul as well for being unable to control the tempo of the match. But the duo has been integral to Scaloni’s plans since the beginning and so, it will be a surprise if the coach drops them.

Mexico can be a potential banana skin for Argentina simply because of the way they play – aggressive going forward, using flanks and high pressing. If Mexico become a little more cohesive in the final third, it could spell trouble for Argentina.

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Expect a cracking atmosphere for this match at the Lusail Stadium. When the tickets went on sale for the World Cup, FIFA said this tie had the highest demand among the fans. And given that there is a huge contingent of fans from both countries in Qatar, the mood should be boisterous.

And because their fates are now intertwined, it’s tough to talk about Argentina without mentioning their slayers, Saudi Arabia. Their brave offside trap and high defence line worked wonders against the South Americans, and it’ll be fascinating to see if Herve Renard once again employs the same tactic – there is no reason for him not to.

Although Poland have one of the best strikers in the world, Robert Lewandowski, they’ve struggled to find the back of the net and managed just six shots at goal against Mexico. Their strong defence makes up for an underperforming attack line but then Saleh Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari are no pushovers. Argentina will testify.

Other fixtures of the day:

Tunisia vs Australia (Group D), 3.30 pm, Al Janoub Stadium

Saudi Arabia vs Poland (Group C), 6.30 pm, Khalifa International Stadium

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First published on: 26-11-2022 at 08:00 IST
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