Argentina’s aim at Qatar 2022 is clear – give Lionel Messi the swansong he deserves by finally winning the World Cup. The 35-year-old will be playing at the tournament for the fifth time and has confirmed it will be his final rodeo on football’s biggest stage: "There’s some anxiety and nerves at the same time. It is the last one," he admitted in a recent interview.
Having come so close to glory in 2014, as Argentina lost to Germany in the final, only to then suffer the frustration of a last-16 defeat to France four years ago, Messi’s chances of lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy appeared to be over. But new coach Lionel Scaloni has overseen a remarkable rebuild of La Albiceleste during the last cycle – completely remaking the team after a number of well-known and experienced coaches turned down the job in the aftermath of Russia 2018.
He has kept Messi as a focal point but worked around his limitations in the twilight of his career – carving out a role in the system that enables him to purely be a creator and facilitator, stripped of almost all defensive responsibility. The all-time great may not have the speed that he did in his pomp but the footballing genius remains, while Lautaro Martinez ahead of him does all the relentless running and pressing for a man a decade older than himself.
Scaloni helped Argentina end their 28-year quest for major silverware with victory at the 2021 Copa America, cruised through CONMEBOL qualification for Qatar and then thumped European champions Italy in the Finalissima. The side are on a 35-game unbeaten run in competitive matches and shouldn’t have any trouble negotiating Saudi Arabia, Poland and Mexico in Group C before the real work begins in the knockout stages. A third World Cup triumph – to add to 1978 and 1986 is a genuine possibility.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Tuesday 22 November: Argentina vs Saudi Arabia – 10:00
Saturday 26 November: Argentina vs Mexico – 19:00
Wednesday 30 November: Poland vs Argentina – 19:00
Goalkeepers: Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa), Franco Armani (River Plate) and Geronimo Rulli (Villarreal)
Defenders: Gonzalo Montiel (Sevilla), Nahuel Molina (Atletico Madrid), German Pezzella (Real Betis), Cristian Romero (Tottenham Hotspur), Nicolas Otamendi (Benfica), Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United), Juan Foyth (Villarreal), Nicolas Tagliafico (Olympique Lyonnais), Marcos Acuna (Sevilla)
Midfielders: Leandro Paredes (Juventus), Guido Rodriguez (Real Betis), Enzo Fernandez (Benfica), Rodrigo De Paul (Atletico Madrid), Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen), Alejandro Gomez (Sevilla), Alexis Mac Allister (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Forwards: Paulo Dybala (AS Roma), Lionel Messi (Paris St Germain), Angel Di Maria (Juventus), Nicolas Gonzalez (Fiorentina), Joaquin Correa (Inter Milan), Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan), Julian Alvarez (Manchester City).
Ones to watch
Star – Lionel Messi: Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. Messi is still the man that makes Argentina tick and the World Cup trophy is the one glaring omission from the legend’s glittering career CV. He’s modified his game as the pace and stamina has inevitably dwindled with age but his wand of a left foot remains a phenomenon and he is the ultimate match-winner. After an up-and-down first season at PSG, the little maestro is playing his best football in years this term and with Scaloni having built a system around his strengths and limitations, that also places some of the burden on his talented teammates, Messi is set to shine one last time in Qatar.
Breakout talent – Cristian Romero: Premier League, and specifically Tottenham, fans know all about the talents of Cristian Romero but Qatar 2022 will provide the platform for him to show the world. A classy centre-back, the 25-year-old is Argentina’s defensive leader – the rare defender who can change a game with his interventions and a defence can be built around. Strong in the air, fearsome in one-on-one situations, quick enough to recover from any lapses and comfortable playing the ball out, he’s an all-round modern centre-back who forms an intimidating partnership with Nicolas Otamendi.
Odds to win the World Cup (taken from Betfair)
It really is win or bust for Argentina in Qatar for Messi’s last stand. The group stage shouldn’t cause any issues and they’ll be favourites for potential last-16 and quarter-final matches against Denmark and Netherlands respectively. If everything goes to form, then a mouth-watering semi-final against a Brazil side who will be desperate for revenge after the 2021 Copa America final awaits and the winner of that will likely go on to lift the trophy. Barring calamities, Argentina should go incredibly deep in this tournament and they might just give Messi his fairytale finish… Win the World Cup
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