Argentina’s latest quest for international glory kicks off on Tuesday, as the South American nation begin their World Cup 2022 Group C campaign against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Iconic Stadium.
La Albiceleste have two World Cups in their cabinet from 1978 and 1986, while Saudi Arabia are aiming to make waves in a difficult group and avoid an expected fourth-placed finish.
In what may very well prove to be Lionel Messi’s World Cup swansong, the script for the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner to propel his nation to the big one has already been written, and there is every reason to believe that this year could be Argentina’s year.
Lionel Scaloni’s side made the journey to Qatar with the Copa America already in the bag, and ending a 36-year run without World Cup glory is next on the agenda for the South American champions, whose luminary Messi had not even been born when they last went all the way in the World Cup.
Since losing 2-0 to Brazil in the 2019 Copa America, Argentina have embarked on an astonishing 36-game unbeaten run across all competitions, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup without losing a game and winning each of their last five in all tournaments.
La Albiceleste’s recent quintet of victories has been accompanied by five clean sheets and a whopping 16 goals – at least three in every game – and their final warm-up friendly versus the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday ended in a comprehensive 5-0 triumph.
Being eliminated from the last 16 with only one win to their name in the entire tournament was a bitter disappointment for Argentina in 2018, four years after falling to Germany in the 2014 final, but a fast start should be on the menu for La Albiceleste in Qatar.
Saudi Arabia held the honour of opening the 2018 World Cup against host nation Russia, but that 5-0 defeat was a forgettable affair for the Arabian Falcons, who will likely be fearing a similar fate versus a rampant Argentina on Tuesday.
Herve Renard’s side were unsurprisingly the victims of a group-stage exit four years ago and are fighting an uphill battle to avoid suffering the same result this time around, with Mexico and Poland also taking their places in a daunting Group C.
A last-16 finish in 1994 represents Saudi Arabia’s sole progression beyond the group stage of the World Cup so far, and the world’s 51st-ranked nation do not arrive in Qatar in the best of form, having won just two of their last 10 matches in all tournaments.
Renard’s men drew 1-1 with Panama and lost 1-0 to Croatia in the build-up to the World Cup, and their last 10 games have only seen nine goals fly in at either end of the pitch, but the Arabian Falcons do at least possess the benefit of playing in such sweltering conditions on a regular basis.
Argentina and Saudi Arabia have never met at the finals of a World Cup before, but the Albiceleste boast a record of two wins and two draws from their previous four clashes with the Asian nation, most recently being held to a goalless stalemate in a 2012 friendly.
Concerns were immediately raised over the welfare of Messi when it was reported that the Paris Saint-Germain attacker was training individually on Saturday, but he is not reported to be suffering from any sort of injury and was back with the team the following day.
Lisandro Martinez (discomfort) and Guido Rodriguez (illness) are both classed as doubtful, though, while Joaquin Correa has been forced to withdraw injured and has been replaced by Thiago Almada.
Assuming he is fit enough, Messi will expect to form an intimidating attacking trident with Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria, while Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi could line up at the back if Martinez is spared.
As for Saudi Arabia, five-cap midfielder Riyadh Sharahili has reportedly sustained a muscular problem which has thrown his World Cup hopes into doubt, while defender Hassan Tambakti is now back in full training after recovering from discomfort.
It would have been a surprise to see either man start against Argentina, though, and experienced attacker Fahad Al-Muwallad – who has 17 international goals to his name – was left out of the squad after failing a drugs test.
Star man Salem Al-Dawsari will expect to occupy the left flank for Saudi Arabia, as Saleh Al-Shehri – the joint top goalscorer in the third round of AFC qualifying with four strikes – starts on the opposite side.
Argentina possible starting lineup:
E. Martinez; Molina, Romero, Otamendi, Tagliafico; De Paul, Paredes, Gomez; Messi, L. Martinez, Di Maria
Saudi Arabia possible starting lineup:
Al-Owais; Al-Burayk, Al-Amri, Al-Bulahyi, Al-Shahrani; Kanno, Al-Malki; Al-Shehri, Al-Faraj, Al-Daswari; Al-Buraikan