DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi begins his legacy-defining World Championship with a match against what is likely to be the weakest opposition the Argentinian star will face in Qatar.
After 36 games unbeaten, Argentina open Tuesday’s group stage against Saudi Arabia – the second-lowest team in the tournament.
It looks like an ideal opportunity for Messi to take his international goal tally to a century – he currently has 91 – in what is surely a losing bid to match the men’s leading mark of 117 owned by great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
How Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni is treating Messi specifically for this game, which will be played at the 80,000-capacity Lusail Iconic Stadium, could be revealing considering the captain’s fitness has been managed en route to the World Cup.
Messi trained individually on Friday and Saturday for what the Argentine Football Federation described as “muscle overload”. That casts doubts on whether Messi will play the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia.
Not that it should be needed that long.
The Saudis may have made it through Asian qualifying relatively easily, but they struggle at the highest level of football, having reached the Round of 16 just once in their five World Cup appearances.
They started the 2018 tournament with a 5-0 loss to Russia, the host country.
On the other hand, Argentina opened this World Cup with a disappointing 1-1 draw against tiny Iceland – in a game where Messi saved a penalty – that put the Albiceleste under immediate pressure.
The team wants to avoid that again.
“I missed, we drew and then the confusion broke out,” Messi recalled in a recent interview. “The first game is key because when you play Mexico with the three points from the game against Saudi Arabia, it’s something different.”
The Argentines are unlikely to stumble this time. Copa America champions in 2021 for their first major title in 28 years, an unbeaten national record – just one close to breaking the world record set by Italy from 2018-21.
Scaloni, Argentina’s somewhat casual coach, has turned his team into an extremely balanced unit and once again a fixture in world football. Where, many believe, it belongs.
Messi is obviously the star of the show and wants to finally win the World Cup to bolster his reputation as arguably the greatest footballer of all time.
The game against Saudi Arabia makes Messi the first Argentine player to play in five World Cups – one more than Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.
Scaloni had to deal with injuries to midfielder Giovani Lo Celso and strikers Nicolas Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa ahead of the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia will be well supported at the World Cup as it shares Qatar’s only land border with the outside world and fans will be flocking over to attend the match, which takes place at the tournament’s largest venue.
Under French coach Hervé Renard, the Saudis have been preparing for several weeks after domestic competitions were suspended to allow players to focus on the World Cup.
“We are ready for this fabulous tournament,” said Renard.
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