Lionel Messi knows he has one last shot at winning the World Cup with Argentina, who will arrive in Qatar unbeaten in 35 official matches after an impressive qualifying campaign and last year’s Copa America triumph in Brazil.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is set to grace his fifth and final World Cup, four years on from Argentina’s turbulent campaign in Russia which ended in the last 16.
Lionel Scaloni, an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli in 2018, has since taken over the top job and fostered genuine belief Argentina can win a third World Cup that narrowly eluded them after an extra-time defeat by Germany in the final eight years ago.
Argentina will be heavily favoured to top Group C ahead of Mexico and Poland. Their first game is against Saudi Arabia – led by two-time Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach Herve Renard – who are determined not to simply make up the numbers.
Reaching the knockout phase has not been an issue for Mexico, who stunned then holders Germany in the first round in Russia only to run into Brazil and suffer their seventh successive last-16 exit.
Veteran midfielder Andres Guardado is set to join Messi by appearing at a fifth World Cup. His finals debut came in a last-16 loss to Argentina in the 2006 edition and he shares the record for most Mexico caps with 177 alongside the legendary Claudio Suarez.
Mexico were again knocked out at the same stage by the same opponents four years later, but El Tri will hope with the insight of Gerardo Martino, the former Argentina and Barcelona coach, they can overcome what has become an all too familiar obstacle.
For a player who has sent goalscoring records tumbling, Robert Lewandowski has yet to make his mark at a World Cup, and remains undoubtedly the key to Poland’s destiny.
The 34-year-old scored nine times in as many outings as Poland punched their ticket to Qatar, taking his haul to 25 goals in 19 games across the last two World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Poland bowed out meekly in the group stage in 2018 and it remains a sore point for Lewandowski. The Barcelona forward, Poland’s captain and all-time top scorer, will have to lead from the front if his country is to make the knockout phase for the first time since 1986.
Lewandowski, who was controversially beaten to last year’s Ballon d’Or by Messi, eagerly awaits the chance to face the Argentine, and perhaps end his World Cup dreams once and for all.
Country profile – Argentina
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1978 and 1986
Other notable performances: 15-time Copa America winners, including in 2021; FIFA Confederations Cup winners in 1992; Olympic gold medal in 2004 and 2008
FIFA ranking: 3rd
Main clubs: River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing, Independiente, San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield, Newell’s Old Boys
How they qualified: Runners-up to Brazil in the single South American qualifying group
Coach: Lionel Scaloni, 44, was the assistant to Jorge Sampaoli during Argentina’s disappointing 2018 World Cup campaign. He then replaced Sampaoli, initially on an interim basis before being appointed permanently. A full-back as a player, Scaloni was part of the Argentina team that won the Under-20 World Cup in 1997 alongside the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso. He was also part of the Deportivo la Coruna side that won the Spanish title in 2000 and the Copa del Rey in 2002. As coach, he took Argentina to third place at the 2019 Copa America before they won the continental title last year, for the first time since 1993. Argentina came through World Cup qualifying without losing, and head to Qatar unbeaten in 35 games. In September, the Argentine Football Association announced that Scaloni’s contract had been extended to 2026.
Key player: At 35, Lionel Messi knows this is surely his last chance to emulate Diego Maradona and lead Argentina to World Cup glory, eight years after they lost in the final to Germany. This will be his last World Cup and he heads to Qatar having scored 90 goals in 164 appearances for his country – he has won more caps and scored more goals for Argentina than anyone else. After a difficult first year at Paris Saint-Germain following his departure from Barcelona, Messi has been in excellent form in the build-up to the World Cup, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 18 games for his club so far this season.
Goalkeepers: Emiliano Martinez, Geronimo Rulli, Franco Armani.
Defenders: Nahuel Molina, Gonzalo Montiel, Cristian Romero, German Pezzella, Nicolas Otamendi, Lisandro Martinez, Marcos Acuna, Nicolas Tagliafico, Juan Foyth.
Midfielders: Rodrigo De Paul, Leandro Paredes, Alexis Mac Allister, Guido Rodriguez, Papu Gomez, Enzo Fernandez, Exequiel Palacios.
Forwards: Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Lautaro Martinez, Julian Alvarez, Paulo Dybala, Angel Correa, Thiago Almada.
November 22: Argentina v Saudi Arabia
November 26: Argentina v Mexico
November 30: Poland v Argentina
Squad update: Argentina forward Nicolas Gonzalez suffered an injury in training on Thursday and is out of the World Cup, his country’s football federation (AFA) said. The 24-year-old Fiorentina forward has been replaced by Angel Correa of Atletico Madrid.
Country profile – Mexico
Best World Cup performance: Quarter finals in 1970 and 1986
Honours: Eight CONCACAF Gold Cups, 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, 2012 Olympic gold medal
FIFA ranking: 13
Main clubs: America, Cruz Azul, Guadalajara, Pumas
How they qualified: Finished second in the North, Central America and Caribbean region final qualifiers
Coach: Gerardo Martino - The Argentinian, who turns 60 on the first day of the World Cup, was appointed in 2019 with the goal of leading the “Tri” to the quarter-finals for the first time in more than three decades. Martino led Atlanta United to the US Major League Soccer Cup title in 2018 and was named coach of the year. He has also managed Barcelona as well as the Argentine and Paraguayan national teams.
Key player: Guillermo Ochoa - The 37-year-old is the Mexican national team’s most capped goalkeeper and holds the record at his Club America for the most games without conceding a goal. Easily recognisable with his curly hair and headband, Ochoa spent three seasons with French side Ajaccio before being chosen as Mexico’s first-choice goalkeeper at the 2014 World Cup. He won plaudits that year for almost single-handedly holding mighty Brazil at bay to help his side earn a precious 0-0 draw.
Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, Rodolfo Cota
Defenders: Kevin Alvarez, Nestor Araujo, Gerardo Arteaga, Jesus Gallardo, Hector Moreno, Cesar Montes, Jorge Sanchez, Johan Vasquez
Midfielders: Edson Alvarez, Roberto Alvarado, Uriel Antuna, Luis Chavez, Andres Guardado, Erick Gutierrez, Hector Herrera, Orbelin Pineda, Carlos Rodriguez, Luis Romo
Forwards: Rogelio Funes Mori, Raul Jimenez, Hirving Lozano , Henry Martin, Alexis Vega
November 22: Mexico v Poland
November 26: Argentina v Mexico
November 30: Saudi Arabia v Mexico
Country profile – Poland
Best World Cup performance: Third place in 1974, 1982
Honours: Olympic champions in 1972
FIFA ranking: 26
Main clubs: Legia Warsaw, Gornik Zabrze, Wisla Krakow, Ruch Chorzow, Lech Poznan
How they qualified: Finished second in European qualifying Group I. Defeated Sweden 2-0 in play-off
Coach: Czeslaw Michniewicz, 52, was appointed in January after Paulo Sousa left to take the job at Brazilian club Flamengo. Born in present-day Belarus, Michniewicz managed nine Polish clubs before he was appointed coach of the country’s Under-21 team in 2017. He led them to the Euro Under-21 finals in 2019. Michniewicz returned to club duty with Legia Warsaw the following year and steered them to a record 15th Polish league title. He was sacked last October after a poor start to the season.
Key player: Robert Lewandowski is one of the greats of Polish football. The country’s record appearance maker and goalscorer, Lewandowski will hope to fare far better than in Russia four years ago when he drew a blank in the group stage and Poland made an early exit. The 34-year-old has picked up at Barcelona where he left off at Bayern Munich following eight prolific, record-breaking seasons with the German giants. The reigning two-time winner of the European Golden Shoe has also won the Best FIFA Men’s Player award the past two years.
Goalkeepers: Wojciech Szczesny, Bartlomiej Dragowski, Lukasz Skorupski
Defenders: Jan Bednarek, Kamil Glik, Robert Gumny, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Jakub Kiwior, Mateusz Wieteska, Bartosz Bereszynski, Matthew Cash, Nicola Zalewski
Midfielders: Krystian Bielik, Przemyslaw Frankowski , Kamil Grosicki, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Jakub Kaminski, Michal Skoras, Damian Szymanski, Sebastian Szymanski, Piotr Zielinski, Szymon Zurkowski
Forwards: Robert Lewandowski, Arkadiusz Milik, Krzysztof Piatek, Karol Swiderski
November 22: Mexico v Poland
November 26: Poland v Saudi Arabia
November 30: Poland v Argentina
Country profile – Saudi Arabia
Best World Cup performance: Round of 16 in 1994
Other honours: None
FIFA ranking: 51
Main clubs: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Shadab, Al Ittihad
How they qualified: Saudi Arabia finished first in Asia zone qualifying Group B
Coach: Herve Renard, 54, was appointed to lead the Green Falcons in 2019. The Frenchman played as a defender for multiple clubs in his home country before embarking on a coaching career in 1999 that has involved stints in Europe, Asia and Africa. He won the Africa Cup of Nations with Zambia in 2012, and followed that up by making Ivory Coast champions of the same tournament in 2015 –- becoming the first manager to win it with different teams. Renard had less success in the Africa Cup of Nations with Morocco, resigning in 2019 after a surprise early loss to Benin.
Key player: Winger Salem al-Dawsari, nicknamed “Tornado”, is participating in his second World Cup after the 2018 tournament in Russia, where he scored the deciding goal in a 2-1 win over Egypt in the final seconds. He has also notched goals in the 2019 Asian Cup and the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. During World Cup qualifiers, the 31-year-old saved Saudi Arabia from a humiliating loss to Yemen, scoring to force a 2-2 draw. He also gave his team three valuable points by scoring the winner against Uzbekistan, again in the dying seconds.
Nov 22 - Argentina v Saudi Arabia
Nov 26 - Poland v Saudi Arabia
Nov 30 - Saudi Arabia v Mexico
Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Owais, Nawaf Al-Aqidi, Mohamed Al-Yami
Defenders: Yasser Al-Shahrani, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Abdulelah Al-Amri, Abdullah Madu, Hassan Tambakti, Sultan Al-Ghanam, Mohammed Al-Breik, Saud Abdulhamid
Midfielders: Salman Al-Faraj, Riyadh Sharahili, Ali Al-Hassan, Mohamed Kanno, Abdulelah Al-Malki, Sami Al-Najei, Abdullah Otayf, Nasser Al-Dawsari , Abdulrahman Al-Aboud, Salem Al-Dawsari, Hattan Bahebri
Forwards: Haitham Asiri, Saleh Al-Shehri, Firas Al-Buraikan
Text inputs from AFP