OK, I’m stretching to get a Rush reference into these. But the heart wants what it wants.
It’s a whole new world for Argentina coming into this World Cup. Certainly in Russia in 2018, and to an extent in Brazil in 2014, the noise around the Albiceleste coming into the tournament was to sort of wonder how they could surround Lionel Messi with such an underwhelming collection of the bewildered and slow. Of course, in 2014, Messi dragged them to the final, but he needed four goals in just the group stage, including a last-minute winner against Iran. They needed extra time to get past Switzerland in the second round, basically hung on to beat Belgium after scoring in the eighth minute, and squeaked through on penalties over The Netherlands in one of the worst matches ever played. And had Gonzalo Higuain been able to locate his ass with one hand and a GPS, Argentina probably would have won the final. But an impressive team, it was not.
2018 was even worse, where they barely scraped out of the group, and though they threw something of a scare into France taking a 2-1 lead, they mostly got thwacked thereafter (2.2 - 0.8 in xG). Looking at the lineup that day, only Angel Di Maria could claim to be anywhere near world-class level, as Javier Mascherano by that point was using a walker to get around the pitch. Even the 2014 team only had Di Maria, a still clinging to his prime Mascherano, and arguably Pablo Zabaleta. The urge is to put Higuain on the list, except when he was putting on an Argentina shirt he reverted to being Alvaro Morata or something. And his costing Messi three major trophies with their country with some hilarious misses backs that up. You know it’s bad when you get a dedicated YouTube video of your failures.
This time around, Argentina are being mentioned as the second or third favorite with France and Brazil. Some of that is based on their Copa America victory last year. And they did that in a variety of ways. They utterly clubbed Ecuador in the quarters, and did the same against Colombia in the semis but were the victims of David Ospina’s latest wonderwall for his country and needed penalties. Against Brazil at The Maracana, they were able to score in the first half and then smother the hosts pretty effectively (0.7 xG while trailing for most of the match for Brazil) to win Messi his first major trophy for Argentina.
They’ve gone on to lace through qualifying after that, with only draws against Paraguay and Brazil at home a blemish, as well as a last-day draw against Ecuador that didn’t really mean anything to them. In fact, Argentina haven’t lost in a very long time, with a 35-match unbeaten run heading into this tournament. That’s a little hard to judge fully, as they’ve only been able to play non-European teams for the most part thanks to the Nations League and the marathon South American qualifying process. However, when they got a look at Italy in the Finalissima last June, they kicked their dicks right into the dirt to the tune of a 3-0 win.
It’s not just the results, but that Argentina just has a way better squad this time around. Maybe there’s still a dearth of players in Messi’s class, even in his 35-year-old stage, but forward Latauro Martinez probably can claim to be. Argentina have mostly played some form of the 4-3-3 that Messi used at Barca to become an unholy force, though he’s bounced from playing from the right and as a straight No. 10 behind two forwards. Papu Gomes has usually been on the other side of Messi and Martinez. Or it could be Man City’s hot young thing Julian Alvarez. There are options.
And there are even more in midfield, where Giovanni Lo Celso or Alexis Mac Allister or Rodrigo De Paul or Leandro Paredes live. Not only do all of these guys provide a fair amount of steel in midfield and can basically turn every lead into a mountain to climb for opponents, but all can do enough running and work to make up for the fact that without the ball, Messi isn’t going to do much moving at all. This is a bonus of the other forwards Argentina use as well. Manager Lionel Scaloni has cracked the code on this.
The draw is pretty kind as well. This is just above a nothing group, especially if Mexico carries their form from qualifying into this. There’s a potential banana skin with Denmark in the round of 16, though that could turn out to be France if they get a little silly in the group. The quarters could see a wonky Dutch side (it’s hard to see Senegal getting there without Sadio Mane) or England if they don’t win their group or some such. They’ll duck Brazil and probably France, and no one else should make them quake.
It feels like it’s set up for them, and the only pothole is if Martinez pulls a Higuain, or Messi just can’t quite conjure something at a pivotal moment thanks to his advancing years. Seeing as how he’s barely had to break a sweat with PSG all season, that doesn’t seem likely. It’s all systems go here.
They’ll have that soft landing in the group stage partially because this is one of the stinkier Mexico squads to show up for a World Cup. While they’re still on a quest for “quinto partido,” the land beyond the Round of 16 that they’ve never reached since the tourney incorporated that, this one might want to concentrate more on getting out of the group. Poland will at least feature Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zieliński, two players better than anything Mexico has. There was a time when Raúl Jiménez would have been one of the more feared strikers in this tournament, but he’s barely getting on the field for Wolves these days and hasn’t been the same (understandably) since he suffered a skull fracture. His health may keep him off the squad altogether. Things got even worse for them when Jesús Corona was ruled out with an ankle injury. Chucky Lozano is going to have to carry almost all the water up front here.
Where the midfield isn’t old it’s unproven and lacking ideas. Mexico can have a ton of the ball and go nowhere with it, which looked pretty obvious in its four games with the US and Canada in qualifying, none of which they won. It also feels like they’re on the verge of firing Tata Martino as manager every five minutes. Maybe they pull it all together now that the big tournament is here, but it feels more like this is the final push for a total disaster. And no, even if they manage to get out of this group, there will be no fifth game waiting behind a date with France or Denmark.
Poland come into this like they do every tournament, hoping that Lewandowski and Zieliński can somehow do it all by themselves. Zieliński is at least playing for the world’s most fun team in Napoli right now and quite well, in fact. If we have to talk ourselves into Jesus Ferreira being up for this, then Poland is absolutely able to do so with Karol Świderski who banged in 10 goals for Charlotte in MLS to go with his five during qualifying. Still, Poland got a free pass in the qualifying playoffs when Russia was tossed out, meaning they only had to play one game to Sweden’s two last spring and it showed. Their match with Mexico could prove pivotal.
Saudi Arabia will have an advantage in that most of their team plays for one club in the country, Al Hilal, so they’ll have a baseline of chemistry and familiarity that a lot of other teams won’t. You saw how easily they were able to frustrate the U.S. in a friendly, and it’s not hard to see them doing the same to Mexico or Poland which lack firepower. Could easily make things interesting going down to the last day.
Manager most likely to get red-carded: Has to be Martino, who will see his firing behind every call that doesn’t go Mexico’s way. Should things go sideways he may just get an early start on his exit.
Best jerseys: Argentina might have the classic look, but have to say Mexico’s are pretty boss, especially the away ones.
Tuesday, Nov. 22 — Argentina v. Saudi Arabia (5 a.m. EST), Mexico v. Poland (11 a.m. EST)
Saturday, Nov. 26 — Poland v. Saudi Arabia (8 a.m. EST), Argentina v. Mexico (2 p.m. EST)
Wednesday, Nov. 30 — Argentina v. Poland, Mexico v. Saudi Arabia (both at 2 p.m. EST)