Doha: Lionel Messi’s Argentina have an easy-looking start to the World Cup on Tuesday based on blistering recent form and opponents Saudi Arabia’s history of drubbings in tournament openers.
The South Americans are on a 36-match unbeaten run with top scorer and captain Messi playing his fifth and last World Cup in search of the elusive honour that would grant him immortality at home alongside Diego Maradona.
“I see him as always … eager to enjoy the World Cup,” said head coach Lionel Scaloni, trying to ease some of the pressure on his main man. “He’s enjoying his team mates, training sessions, the stay and the whole process.” Saudi Arabia are ranked 48 places lower than Argentina, lost to Venezuela, Colombia and Croatia in a mixed bag of friendlies, and have a dismal record at opening games including losing 5-0 to Russia in 2018 and 8-0 to Germany in 2002.
Sixth World Cup
Yet they have pedigree too: this is their sixth World Cup, they reached the last 16 in 1994, and they made it to Qatar by topping their group ahead of Japan.
“I saw a country full of young, talented players. We achieved our first target, let’s work together for the rest,” said coach Herve Renard.
Both teams will be noisily and massively supported when they kick off for the first game in the Lusail Stadium, the tournament’s largest venue which will also host the final.
Thousands of Saudis will flock over the border while Argentina’s traditionally large following will be swelled by a burgeoning fan base in Qatar and around the Middle East.
Range of talent
Scaloni was pained to lose “irreplaceable” midfielder Giovani Lo Celso to injury. But he still has an enviable range of talent, from the likes of Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez at the back to Leandro Paredes in the middle and the evergreen Angel Di Maria up front with Messi.
Renard’s far lesser-known team is entirely home-based, with the financial clout of the Saudi Pro League ensuring few leading players aspire to venture overseas.
Argentina will pay particular attention to their captain and veteran midfielder Salman Al Faraj, whose elegant play has helped Al Hilal dominate Asian club football in recent years.
Argentina will fully expect to beat Mexico and Poland in their other Group C games, whereas the Saudis may have to accept damage limitation in their opening match before a more realistic quest for points in their next two.