With Group A and B now covered, we move into one of the toughest and most balanced groups in the tournament with Group C. Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Poland can all make history in this tournament, but who’s in the best shape to get their World Cup journey started?
Argentina and Who They’re Playing For
Probably the most emotional, fairytale narrative in the tournament, Argentina come into Qatar with one goal in mind: Help Lionel Messi win his World Cup. The man who has given the country everything he had over the past decade and a half now has a final chance (as far as we know) to win the one trophy people have said he needs to cement his GOAT status in the sport.
Now, whether Messi deserves it over every other country is up for debate and it won’t be a pity tournament where he rides the bench as a symbol for the team but historically, the team hasn’t helped Messi in those big moments, and with his play this year we know the worry will remain on the rest of the squad. The team is definitely one of, if not the, strongest teams he has had, finally with a near world-class backline that has Lisandro Martinez and Cristian Romero leading the defense with Nahuel Molina and Macros Acuna on either side. The midfield is the most balanced it has been in a long time with Rodrigo De Paul headlining and we know of the frontline. Now all that’s left is to execute and cap off one of the greatest careers in the history of sports.
Mexico’s Quinto Juego
Much like their North American counterparts, the U.S.A., Mexico faces a lot of pressure heading into Qatar and the narrative of their struggles to reach the quarterfinals grows stronger as they fall short each time. It may be unfair to judge them this time around but the squad selection does scream of a domestic quota that Tato Martino was told to fulfill.
Squad selection aside, Mexico still has a solid foundation throughout the squad. Hirving Lozano and Raul Jimenez could make for an exciting duo up front and this is the first we will see of Edson Alvarez on a global stage. The only “downside” which is really more a lack of creativity than anything is that there are many players from past runs still finding themselves with big roles this year. Guillermo Ochoa and Andres Guardado still remain in the team as leaders but something about a 37-year-old goalkeeper starting against Robert Lewandowski and Lautaro Martinez could be fatal.
Big Decisions for Poland
Decisions here doesn’t mean what it implies necessarily. The team is very well put together and the starting eleven is easy to pick out but Czeslaw Michniewicz needs to decide whether Poland plans to assert dominance and play on the front foot to secure qualification to the second round or continue playing somewhat conservatively. Whether or not this is the group to find this out is up for debate but there isn’t much time to figure it out.
The focus is obviously Robert Lewandowski but he plays the classic “world-class forward in a weaker country” role despite Poland’s quality in attack. He does a lot of hold-up play for the others around him but now with players like Piotr Zielinski backing him, we can see him unlocked if Michniewicz allows it.
Disruption in Saudi Arabia
If we’re being truthful about where each country stands at this point in time in terms of expectation, Saudi Arabia may have the least. This isn’t to say they are bad since they have a ton of quality out wide which makes for fun performances, but this can relieve pressure and allow them to play the style they want in a strong group.
Labeling a team as a “disruptor” can be backhanded, but in this case, they truly have a chance to catch a team by surprise. Argentina may be immune to it, but a defensive Poland and a Mexico team lacking some confidence and quality in certain areas can make the perfect storm for Saudi Arabia to really step up and make a mark this year. The last World Cup in Russia was truly a disaster but this is a new team now, reborn from their cohesiveness and experience. Nasser Al-Dawasari is definitely one to watch as well as a young talent that has shown solid production over the past seasons.