It was meant to be Lionel Messi’s crowning moment for Argentina – the tournament in which he steps out of Diego Maradona’s shadow for the national team – but the 2022 World Cup has been a mixed experience for the 35-year-old so far.
Argentina was stunned by Saudi Arabia in its first game, before getting its campaign back on track with a 2-0 victory over Mexico in which Messi scored the opening goal.
It means that with just a game left in Group C, Argentina remains in the hunt to progress to the knockout stages in Messi’s fifth World Cup campaign.
Argentina sits second on three points, a point behind Group C leader Poland, knowing a win in its final game against the Polish will assure its progression.
Defender Lisandro Martinez said the team, including Messi, is only getting better.
“Everything comes down to details,” Martinez said on Tuesday in a press conference. “We saw it with Messi’s goal. Before that the match (against Mexico) was very tight.”
“We know what we are capable of. We can play better and we know we have not reached our best level yet. But we are trying,” he added.
Argentina faces a Poland team spearheaded by its own iconic striker, Robert Lewandowski, who scored his first World Cup goal last time out against Saudi Arabia.
The 34-year-old Lewandowski, who is also his nation’s all-time top scorer like Messi, missed a penalty in a damp squib of a 0-0 draw against Mexico in Poland’s opening game but redeemed himself with the second in the 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.
And Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni was full of praise for Lewandowski, calling him a “top player.”
“It will be a privilege and pleasure to see him from up close as a football fan,” Scaloni said. “Is he at the same level as Messi? You just have to enjoy such a good player. Why compare one player with another. That’s not helpful.”
Following its famous victory over Argentina, a win for Saudi Arabia against Mexico will assure its first qualification for the last 16 since 1994, while a draw would mean it would need Poland to beat Argentina.
Saudi Arabia head coach Herve Renard said his team have defied expectations already.
“No one around the world thought that we could play with this level. Yes, in Saudi Arabia we know the players well, but they are unknown to the fans around the world,” Renard told a news conference after the Poland game. “We are still alive.”
Mexico’s hopes are much slimmer, needing to beat Saudi Arabia by at least a three-goal margin, with Poland not losing to Argentina.