Tuesday marks the beginning of Argentina’s most recent bid for international success as the South American nation faces Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Iconic Stadium to open Group C of the 2022 World Cup.
La Albiceleste has two World Cup titles to their credit—1978 and 1986—while Saudi Arabia hopes to make waves in a challenging group and avoid finishing fourth as predicted.
The plan for the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner to lead his country to the World Cup has already been laid out, and there are plenty of reasons to think that this year could be Argentina’s year. However, this World Cup could very well be Lionel Messi’s swan song.
The South American champions, whose star player Messi had not yet been born when they last made it all the way in the World Cup, made the trip to Qatar with the Copa America already in hand. Their goal now is to end a 36-year slide without a World Cup victory.
Argentina has gone on an incredible 36-game unbeaten streak across all competitions since losing 2-0 to Brazil in the 2019 Copa America. During this time, they have qualified for the 2022 World Cup without dropping a contest and have won each of their last five matches overall.
La Albiceleste’s latest five wins have been accompanied by five shutouts, a staggering 16 goals (at least three in each game), and on Wednesday, they easily defeated the United Arab Emirates 5-0 in their final preseason friendly.
Four years after losing to Germany in the final in 2014, Argentina’s elimination from the last 16 with just one victory to their name was a devastating blow, but La Albiceleste should have more luck in Qatar.
The Arabian Falcons, who had the honour of facing the host nation Russia in the 2018 World Cup opener, suffered a humiliating 5-0 loss, and they will certainly be fearing a repeat performance against an out-of-control Argentina on Tuesday.
With Mexico and Poland joining them in a difficult Group C, Herve Renard’s team, who inevitably exited at the group stage four years ago, faces an uphill battle to avoid experiencing the same fate this time.
The only time Saudi Arabia has advanced past the group stage of the World Cup was in 1994, and the country, which is now rated 51st in the world, is not in the best of form, having won just two of their last 10 games across all events.
In the run-up to the World Cup, Renard’s team drew 1-1 with Panama and fell 1-0 to Croatia, and in their past 10 matches, just nine goals have been scored at either end of the field. However, the Arabian Falcons at least have the advantage of regularly competing in the such oppressive heat.
Argentina and Saudi Arabia have never faced off in the World Cup finals, but in their four prior meetings, the Albiceleste have a record of two victories and two draws, most recently being held to a scoreless tie in 2012 friendly.
When it was revealed that Messi was practicing alone on Saturday for Paris Saint-Germain, worries about his well-being arose right away. However, he is not believed to be injured and may have simply been taking a much-needed break.
In addition to being limited to indoor practice, Lisandro Martinez and Exequiel Palacios should be fine for Tuesday, but Joaquin Correa has been forced to withdraw due to injury and has been replaced by Thiago Almada.
While Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi may line up at the back if Lautaro Martinez is spared, Messi will anticipate forming an imposing attacking trident with Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez.
Riyadh Sharahili, a midfielder for Saudi Arabia with five caps, is apparently dealing with a muscular injury that casts doubt on his World Cup prospects, and Hassan Tambakti, a defender, missed training on Saturday owing to pain.
However, neither player would have been expected to start against Argentina, and seasoned forward Fahad Al-Muwallad, who has 17 goals in international competition, left the team after failing a drug test.
Salim Al-Dawsari, Saudi Arabia’s standout player, is expected to play on the left flank, while Saleh Al-Shehri, who scored four goals in the third round of AFC qualifying, starts on the other side.
Argentina’s potential starting eleven include Messi, L. Martinez, Di Maria, Molina, Romero, Otamendi, De Paul, and Mac Allister.
Al-Owais, Al-Burayk, Al-Amri, Al-Bulahyi, Al-Shahrani, Kanno, Al-Malki, Al-Shehri, Al-Faraj, Al-Daswari, and Al-Buraikan might all make the Saudi Arabian starting lineup.