31 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.
Saudi Arabia vs Mexico
12.30 am (Thursday), Lusail Stadium
At every World Cup since 1994, Mexico have reached the last 16. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, haven’t gone beyond the group stage since 1994.
On Wednesday, something’s got to give.
The ripples of Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina can still be felt in the way Group C is shaping up heading into its final matchday. All four teams still have a shot at qualifying for the Round of 16.
To progress, Lionel Messi and Argentina will have to overcome the group’s only unbeaten team, Poland, who can top the pool by upsetting the Albiceleste. In their shadows, Saudi Arabia will be hoping to script history by beating Mexico, who’ll need a divine intervention to stay alive in the tournament.
It would have taken a brave person to predict that in a group comprising South and North American giants, along with a European middleweight, the Saudis would be the most entertaining and adventurous side.
Herve Renard’s men have shown a great appetite for risk: enthralling the spectators with their ridiculously high defence line, teasing and baiting their opponents to get past it, snatching possession and then hitting them on the counter.
Had Argentina got their runs right, the scenario would have been very different now. However, despite disallowed goals and the constant threat of Messi running through, again and again, Saudi stuck to their plan and for that, they should be credited.
Renard had trained his defence well and the line ahead of them applied continuous pressure on the Argentines, smothering them on a muggy Doha afternoon. Not many teams would have dared to do so against the title contenders, and on any other day, it could’ve gone against them, as it did against Poland where Saudi enjoyed more possession, created better chances and had more shots at goal but still ended up on the losing side.
Yet, their high press coupled with direct attacks made them a joy to watch. In hindsight, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have been so brave. Throughout their qualifying campaign, Saudi played the same way.
Perhaps, their fine run in the qualifiers got lost in the poor build-up to the World Cup.
Now, what remains to be seen is whether they can reproduce their magic one last time in the group stage when they need it the most. Will they have enough gas left in the tank after leaving it all on the field in the opening two matches?
It’ll be a thrilling affair for multiple reasons. These are two teams with seemingly nothing to lose – Mexico’s fate isn’t in their hands so all they can do is go all out, win, and pray other result goes their way; Saudi weren’t expected to do this well anyway so anything they achieve now will be a bonus.
If both sides stick to their styles, it’ll be an end-to-end affair. Mexico, as they showed against Argentina, are a side that loves to attack and have players – Raul Jimenez and Alexis Vega – who can beat the Saudi high line. The Saudis will be salivating at the prospect of catching the Mexicans on counterattacks, with Mohamed Kanno and Salem Al Dawsari as their key threats.
Mexico will also be hoping that their fine run of reaching the Round of 16 in every edition since 1994 doesn’t come to an end, especially since they’ll co-host the 2026 edition. On the other hand, Saudi will be keen to launch their bid for the 2030 World Cup by breaking the group-stage jinx and entering the Round of 16 for the first time since 1994.
And regardless of the outcome, Saudi will hope to end the group stage the same way they started – by mesmerising with their direct, attacking approach. Mexico will at least mesmerise with their beautiful away jersey, which they are expected to wear on Wednesday: off-white with red stripes, graphically inspired by the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. If there was a World Cup trophy for best jerseys, Mexico wouldn’t return home empty-handed.
Other fixtures on the day:
Australia vs Denmark, 8.30 pm, Al Janoub Stadium
France vs Tunisia, 8.30 pm, Education City Stadium
Argentina vs Poland, 12.30 am (Thursday), Stadium 974