Leo Messi (left)Photo: Getty Images
OK, reaching out to get a rush reference into this one. But the heart wants what it wants.
It’s a whole new world for Argentina to be at this World Cup. Certainly in Russia in 2018 and to some extent in Brazil in 2014, the clamor surrounding the Albiceleste coming into the tournament was a question of sorts, how could they surround Lionel Messi with such an overwhelming collection of confused and slow. Of course, Messi dragged them to the final in 2014, but he only needed four goals in the group stage, including a last-minute win over Iran. They needed extra time to get past Switzerland in the second round, basically held on to beating Belgium after scoring in the eighth minute and defeated the Netherlands on penalties in one of their worst games of all time. And had Gonzalo Higuain been able to locate his butt with one hand and a GPS, Argentina probably would have won the final. But it wasn’t an impressive team.
2018 was even worse where they narrowly scraped themselves out of the group and although they scared France with a 2-1 lead, they were mostly beaten afterwards (2.2 – 0.8 in xG). Looking at the line-up on the day, only Angel Di Maria can claim that he is anywhere near world-class level as Javier Mascherano was using a walker to get around the pitch at the time. Even the 2014 team only had Di Maria, still sticking to his best Mascherano, and arguably Pablo Zabaleta. The urge is to put Higuain on the list, except when he put on an Argentine jersey he became Alvaro Morata again or something. And that he has cost Messi three major trophies with his country, with some hilarious failures, confirms that. You know it’s bad when you get a special YouTube video of your mistakes.
This time Argentina is named as the second or third favorite alongside France and Brazil. Some of this is based on their Copa America win last year. And they did that in a variety of ways. They beat Ecuador in the quarters and did the same against Colombia in the semis but fell victim to David Ospina’s recent miracle wall for his country and needed penalties. Against Brazil at the Maracana, they were able to score in the first half and then choke the hosts quite effectively (0.7 xG while being behind for Brazil for most of the game) to give Messi his first major trophy for Argentina.
They then prevailed in qualifying, with only draws against Paraguay and Brazil at home being a blemish, and a draw against Ecuador on the last day that didn’t really mean anything to them. In fact, Argentina haven’t lost in a very long time, with a 35-game unbeaten run heading into this tournament. That’s a little hard to judge as they’ve largely only been able to play non-European teams thanks to the Nations League and the South American marathon qualifying process. However, when they faced Italy in the Finalissima last June, they kicked their tails straight into the dirt in a 3-0 win.
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It’s not just the results, it’s just that Argentina have a much better squad this time. Perhaps there is still a lack of players in Messi’s class, even in his 35-year streak, but forward Latauro Martinez can probably claim he is. Argentina have mostly played a form of 4-3-3, which Messi used at Barca to become an unholy force, despite rebounding from the right and as a direct No.10 behind two forwards. Papu Gomes was usually on the other side of Messi and Martinez. Or it could be Man City’s hot young thing Julian Alvarez. There are options.
And there’s more in midfield where Giovanni Lo Celso or Alexis Mac Allister or Rodrigo De Paul or Leandro Paredes live. Not only do all these guys deliver a lot of steel in midfield and can basically turn any lead into a mountain for the opposition to climb, but all can run and work enough to make up for the fact that Messi isn’t without the ball won’t move much at all. This is also a bonus of the other Argentine strikers. Manager Lionel Scaloni has cracked the code for it.
The draw is pretty nice too. This is just above a nothing group, especially if Mexico carry their form from qualifying into this group. There is a potential banana peel in the round of 16 in Denmark, but they could turn out to be France if they get a little silly in the group. The quarterfinals could see a shaky Dutch side (it’s hard to imagine Senegal getting there without Sadio Mane) or England if they don’t win their group or something. They will avoid Brazil and probably France, and no one else should make them tremble.
It feels like it’s set up for them and the only pothole is when Martinez pulls a Higuain or Messi simply can’t summon anything at a crucial moment thanks to his advancing years. That doesn’t seem likely given that he’s barely worked a sweat all season at PSG. All systems are running here.
Part of the reason they’ll have that soft landing in the group stage is because this is one of the smellier Mexican squads to turn up for a World Cup. While they’re still in search of “Quinto Partido,” the country beyond the round of 16 they’ve never reached since the tournament, perhaps they should focus more on getting out of the group. Poland will at least have Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zieliński, two players better than anything Mexico has. There was a time when Raúl Jiménez would have been one of the more feared forwards in this tournament but he rarely appears on the field for Wolves these days and has (understandably) not been the same since suffering a fractured skull. His health could keep him away from the squad altogether. Things got even worse for them when Jesús Corona was out with an ankle injury. Chucky Lozano will have to carry almost all the water forward here.
Where the midfield is not old, it is unproven and unimaginative. Mexico can have a lot of possession and go nowhere with it, which looked pretty obvious in their four qualifiers against USA and Canada, neither of which they won. It also feels like they are on the verge of firing Tata Martino as manager every five minutes. Maybe they’re pulling it all together now that the big tournament is here, but it feels more like this is the final push to a total disaster. And no, even if they manage to get out of that group, there won’t be a fifth game waiting behind a date with France or Denmark.
As in any tournament, Poland come into play hoping that Lewandowski and Zieliński can somehow go it alone. At least Zieliński is playing in Napoli for the funniest team in the world, and he’s doing quite well. If we have to talk ourselves into Jesus Ferreira then Poland are perfectly capable of doing so with Karol Świderski scoring 10 MLS goals for Charlotte in MLS to go with his five in qualifying. Despite this, Poland got a free pass in the qualifying playoffs when Russia were knocked out, meaning they only had to play one game against the two Swedes last spring, and it showed. Their game against Mexico could prove decisive.
Saudi Arabia will have an advantage in that most of their teams play for a club in the country, Al Hilal, so they will have a baseline of chemistry and familiarity that many other teams will not have. They’ve seen how easily they could frustrate USA in a friendly and it’s not hard to see them do the same with Mexico or Poland, who lack firepower. Could keep things slightly interesting until the last day.
Manager Red Card Most Likely: Must be Martino who will fire behind any call that doesn’t go to Mexico. Should things go sideways, he might get an early start with his exit.
Best Kits: Argentina may have the classic look, but Mexico is quite the boss, especially the away kits.
Tuesday, Nov. 22 – Argentina – Saudi Arabia (5:00 p.m. EST), Mexico – Poland (11:00 a.m. EST)
Saturday, November 26 – Poland – Saudi Arabia (8am EST), Argentina – Mexico (2pm EST)
Wednesday, November 30 – Argentina – Poland, Mexico – Saudi Arabia (both at 2:00 p.m. EST)