Argentina v Saudi Arabia
Argentina’s World Cup adventure begins on Tuesday, with all eyes on one man in particular.
Lionel Messi is gearing up for his fourth and most likely final tournament for the Albiceleste, who kick off in Group C with a clash against Saudi Arabia in the Lusail Stadium. So far this competition has brought the Paris Saint-Germain ace and seven-time Ballon d’Or little more than anguish and disappointment, but there is reason to think this year might just prove different.
Lionel Scaloni’s men certainly look to be the best-drilled side the nation has sent to a finals in the last 20 years, with strong players not just in attack, as is customary, but across the pitch. From the combative Emiliano Martinez in goal, fellow Premier League stars like Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez running the backline and dynamic midfield duo Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul putting in the hard yards this is the most balanced Argentina team we have seen in a long while.
Saudi Arabia performed well in qualifying. They surprised a few by finishing above Japan but they will need to be at their best to make it out of a difficult group in Qatar. The difficult draw has not dampened spirits and the team remain hopeful of making it to the knockout stages. Saudi coach, Herve Renard, has used a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation for majority of the teams’ most recent matches.
Renard will have his work cut out as he sets up his team to deal with the threat posed by the Argentine attack. However, they have shown they are a capable outfit in the lead up to this competition. The Saudi’s haven’t allowed any opponent in their last 10 matches to score 2 goals. They haven’t faced anyone who are in the same bracket as the Argentine’s, but this shouldn’t be a walk in the park for Messi and co.
The Saudi’s were able to keep 2018’s beaten finalists at bay until late on. I expect Argentina to win the opening match, but I would be shocked if they manage to put the game to bed early on.
While much of the spotlight in the Argentina camp naturally gravitates towards Messi, his attacking partner-in-crime has arguably been just as important to the nation’s footballing fortunes over the last four years of Scaloni’s tenure.
Martinez is second only to Leo himself when it comes to goals netted for Argentina under Scaloni, with an impressive 21 in 40 caps. That includes four in five appearances so far in 2022, marking him out as a fearsome opponent in and around the penalty area. Another interesting piece of data to bear in mind: of those 21 strikes, no fewer than 10 have come to open the scoring for the Albiceleste, with all but one of those matches ultimately ending in victory.
Leading up to this World Cup debut there has been talk about Martinez’s fitness, but after sitting out the warm-up clash with UAE he resumed normal training and should feel no ill-effect by Tuesday. As if it were not enough to keep Messi under wraps, Saudi Arabia may well find the Inter star breaking through to make the difference in the Group C opener.
Paredes’ distribution and ability to anchor the midfield makes him a key part of the Argentina set-up, and when the Albiceleste start moving forward more often than not it is the Juventus star who gets them in motion with one of his trademark searching passes that have the ability to change the rhythm of the game in a blink of an eye.
There is a darker side to his game too, however. Paredes is no angel on the pitch, and if he has to chop down an opponent to stop an attack in its tracks, he rarely hesitates to do so. That has led to a rather spotty disciplinary record: four yellow cards in the last World Cup qualifying campaign, and another two bookings in six outings during their victorious run to the 2021 Copa America title. Do not be surprised to see him diving in and facing the referee’s wrath at some point during Tuesday’s game.
Salman committed 2 fouls in the last match against Croatia. He played as a number 10 in that game but is expected to start slightly deeper on Tuesday. Even if he remains in an advanced role, he will have to drop deep to deal with the Argentine onslaught. Saudi Arabia cannot afford to have passengers when out of possession against a team that should see over 60% possession.
Messi is likely to feature just off the right of the Argentine flank. This will put him in direct opposition with Al-Faraj. Lionel has been at the top of the game for 15 years and the only way to stop him in his tracks is to commit a foul.
Al-Faraj picked up 2 yellow cards in qualifying; the joint 2nd most in the squad. He will likely be forced to commit fouls on Tuesday.
Written by an Andy verified content writer
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