South American champions Argentina will meet Saudi Arabia at Lusail Stadium to begin their quest for the first World Cup trophy since 1986.
Saudi Arabia are one of the strongest football forces in Asia, having worn the crown of continental supremacy no less than three times, but they will enter the fray as underdogs against La Albiceleste.
Lionel Messi has announced that this will be his last World Cup journey.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or-winner will have one last attempt at the only trophy that has eluded him in his illustrious career, the World Cup.
Messi came agonisingly close to ending his nation’s World Cup drought in 2014, but the heartbreak of a 1-0 loss in the final to Germany prompted him to retire from international duty.
He would return later, but back-to-back final losses to Chile in the Copa América before a humiliating round-of-16 exit from the 2018 World Cup heaped more misery on the mercurial forward.
But then came Lionel Scaloni.
The Scaloni effect
Scaloni was a unproven name when he took charge of Argentina following the 2018 World Cup catastrophe.
He laid the foundations of a formidable team with excellent chemistry between the players.
The former Lazio defender became the first Argentina manager to win an international title since Alfio Basile (1993 Copa América) when he oversaw Argentina’s Copa América-winning campaign in 2021.
Now Scaloni would hope to become the third Argentina manager after Carlos Bilardo and César Menotti to win the World Cup.
He has a vitalised squad at his disposal with the perfect blend of youth and experience.
Argentina would like to get their World Cup mission running with a big win and extend their unbeaten run to 37 matches and match Italy’s world record for the longest unbeaten streak in international football.
Saudi Arabia’s track record
Saudi Arabia played in the inaugural match of the 2018 World Cup, but Al-Saqour will not be keen to relive that memory as they lost 5-0 against the hosts, Russia.
They will be keen to avoid a similar result this time around as they face an even stronger opposition.
The Asian side only progressed beyond the group stages once.
Apart from the round of 16 appearance in the 1994 World Cup, Saudi Arabia never managed to make it into the knockout stages.
Hervé Renard’s team will face an uphill battle to avoid that fate once again as they are scheduled to play against Argentina, Mexico, and Poland in their three group matches.
Saudi Arabia can’t look at their recent results for inspiration either.
They warmed up for the World Cup with a one-all draw with Panama and a narrow 1-0 defeat to Croatia. Over the last ten matches, the Falcons have emerged victorious only twice.
The only advantage Saudi Arabia have over Argentina is that they are more familiar with Qatar’s desert climate than their Monday afternoon oppositions. So, they will hope to take advantage of the sweltering midday heat.
Lionel Messi’s absence of training sparked rumours that he might not be available for the Group C opener, but the latest reports rubbush such claims and say that the PSG ace will be available to line up alongside Lautaro Martínez and Ángel Di María.
Inter Milan forward Joaquín Correa went back home after sustaining an injury in training. Atalanta’s Thiago Almada took his place in the squad.
In defence, Scaloni might sacrifice Lisandro Martínez in favour of a natural left foot-right foot centre-back pair of Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero.
The latter was doubtful for the Saudi Arabia match, but concrete reports have surfaced that Romero will be fit to start.
Saud Arabia midfielder Riyadh Sharahili has picked up a muscle injury during training which could not only keep him out of the Argentina match, but also end his World Cup campaign.
Defender Hassan Tambakti was not seen in training on Saturday.
Saudi Arabia already had suffered a massive blow to their World Cup ambitions when they were compelled to send Fahad Al-Muwallad, one of their best forwards, back home as his doping test results came back positive.
Saudi Arabia have two draws in their four encounters with Argentina, but both of those draws came in friendlies, and the World Cup is different gravy.
Argentina have been on red hot form lately, so we expect them to pick up a dominant 4-0 win over Saudi Arabia.