Today, with Group C, we continue our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—Argentina, Mexico, Poland, and Saudi Arabia.
This is one of the classic World Cup groups with CONMEBOL, CONCACAF, UEFA, and AFC all represented. Certainly, the South Americans, with Lionel Messi chomping at the bit in what is probably his last quadrennial show, are the overwhelming favorites to progress, but Poland and Mexico are not easy rivals and Saudi Arabia will be feeling like they are playing at home. So, this could be a group with a few surprises.
Argentina are coming to Qatar on the high of both having the sham 2021 Copa America trophy in hand and of playing well as a team and for a good stretch (for the first time in ages). Whether they will be able to continue inhabiting that rut is another matter and the team is still overwhelmingly dependent upon Messi’s contribution (the good news being the ex-Barcelona star is in excellent form) and to a lesser but important extent to that of Angel di Maria, Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, and Nicolas Otamendi. Should any of these players suffer an injury or be out of form the entire Albiceleste project will go off-kilter.
And that has been the Argentine’s story for the past four World Cups, they come in strong and wilt. One could even argue that was the case in 2014 where they again seemed to have problems putting away lesser competitors such as when they needed an own goal to get past Bosnia and Herzegovina, a 90+1 Messi goal to get past Iran, a 118th minute Di Maria goal to get past Switzerland, or when they held on for a 1-0 win over Belgium after a rare and fortunate 8th minute Higuain score, and then snuck into the finals with a penalty win over the Dutch only to again lose out 0-1 to an extra time German score. To win the World Cup you need that hot streak to last at least six of the seven tournament matches. What Argentine team will show up this time—the one in that rut or the one of cups past—that is the question.
Mexico is coming off two tough years with 2021 and 2022 being negatively remarkable for the Tri. They lost both the Nations League and the Gold Cup to the Yanks and neither final game was particularly questionable, they deserved to lose both. In the interim, they have been able to notch it up a bit with an even-handed 3W-3L-3D record out of nine friendly prep matches. The losses came to Uruguay (0-3) in June, Paraguay (0-1) in August, and Colombia (2-3) in September. The trajectory was that despite the tough competition the scoreline continually improved. Similarly, wins against Peru (1-0) and Nigeria (2-1) were encouraging and tussles with Iraq and Sweden remain on the docket for the first half of November. If those matches turn out to be wins, the Tri may have righted their boat just in time.
Poland qualified for Qatar by getting a bye from FIFA for their game against Russia and then beating a good Swedish team 2-0 in March. Thereafter they have had the advantage of playing in the UEFA Nations League this summer and fall where they encountered high-end opposition such as Belgium and Holland. They got creamed by Belgium (1-6) in Brussels but kept it to 0-1 at home. Their other loss, 0-2 to the Dutch, was a hard-fought match the Netherlands needed to win after having drawn 2-2 with Poland in Rotterdam. The Poles have a final home prep game against Chile in mid-November and are simply hoping to reach the cup healthy.
The Polish side have no illusions of going deep into the tourney but they do believe getting out of their group, second to Argentina, is possible with a good game against Mexico and a win over Saudi Arabia. What the Poles lack in talent, other than Lewandowski, they make up for in physicality and stamina qualities that might just be enough to carry them through should Mexico or Argentina stumble, particularly if the Saudis are as weak as advertised.
Saudi Arabia are outclassed by their group rivals and will be lucky to keep afloat in their group’s deep end. But truth be told, they are improving at just the right time and have drawn even (0-0) with both Ecuador and the USA in September friendlies played in Spain. They have also set up prep matches from October 30th through November 16th against Honduras, Iceland, Panama, and Croatia, a varied and challenging menu that should give them a very good baseline of their potential at Qatar. Should they do well in this penultimate crucible, and in particular against Croatia, they may well surprise a group mate or two. They will be hoping to peak come their opening match against Messi and Company on November 22nd.
Argentina—are aiming to win the cup and feel their Finalissima and Copa America wins made a statement of their potential. Though they have a current team with lots of professional and personal chemistry and a good upcoming generation of future stars, the former group are aging and feel the pressure of never having given Messi a World Cup trophy, while the younger guns among them know they are a good cup or two away from reaching their potential. Therein may lie a fissure that is hard to gloss over.
Thus, the national team is at a crossroads knowing this is their last good chance at the cup for a while because when this generation retires, they have little expectation of contesting another trophy until about 2030, which must be their next milestone. For now, having Messi in uniform is the incentive they need to dream of lifting the trophy in December.
Argentina will likely make it out top of their group and then on to a Round of 16 against Denmark (who they will likely beat) or France (to whom they will likely fall). If they move on to the quarterfinals, they will probably face the Dutch, who are a 50-50 proposition depending on which team shows up for either side. But thereafter they would meet Brazil, and the ghosts of July 10, 2021, at the Maracana will catch up with them. And this time, without any official restrictions, Neymar and Company will have the last laugh.
If Mexico get their act together in time they will progress in second place behind Argentina, perhaps having drawn with the Albiceleste and dealt decisively with Poland and Saudi Arabia en route, if not by as much a margin as the Argentines will have. Should they not return to playing at least near their potential the Poles will take their place. Assuming the Mexicans progress, their next game will unfortunately likely be against France or Denmark and though a loss against the former should be a foregone conclusion, the match against the latter might be a game of the cup. Either way, the odds of the Tri getting out of the group are not bad but the odds of breaking the never “reaching the fifth game” jinx this time around seem remote.
Poland will need to play their absolute best three matches in years to reach the knockout stage and given one of the games will probably still be a loss against Messi’s troops the odds are the Poles will need to at least draw with Mexico and defeat Saudi Arabia for any hope of progression. Given the Mexicans seem to be consistently improving the Poles will need to make their match up with the Tri their best performance. If they do accomplish this they will move on, but the smart money is on the Mexicans.
Saudi Arabia wants to take advantage of playing in familiar environmental conditions and the hope that their form will continue to improve and thus give them an outside chance to pull an upset and progress from their group. Papa believes that will not happen.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is Sports Illustrated’s Tim Vickery on Argentina playing Jamaica in a September prep friendly:
“…Messi did not start in the 3-0 win against Jamaica. The good news was that Argentina took comfortable control without him. Messi came on early in the second half. [The game remained stuck at 1-0 since the 13th-minute mark.] The game seemed to be drifting until he struck two wonderfully well-taken late goals [86th and 89th] to seal the win…”
Here is ESPN’s Cesar Hernandez on Mexico:
“One step forward, two steps back. Following a vital but unconvincing 1-0 win over Peru…Mexico then shot themselves in the foot by letting a 2-0 lead against Colombia turn into a calamitous 3-2 defeat.”
Here is The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson on the Poland-Saudi Arabia match-up:
“This feels like one of those ‘guy wins the Golden Boot in one game’ type matches, doesn’t it? Would the over-under on Lewandowski’s goals be 1.5? Maybe even 2?”
Here is Wilson on the Poland-Argentina match-up he envisions will be a 1-1 draw:
“A chance for Lewandowski to avenge Messi for stealing his Ballon d’Or? Or not. When both teams benefit from a draw, I expect both teams to — ultimately — benefit from a draw.”
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
Though the Mexican media are not presently debating Mexico’s chances to progress they are breaking down their team’s group games and discussing how those might develop. Milenio, the Mexican news magazine turned newspaper, has a countdown clock on its home page letting readers know how much time is left before the Qatar 2022 World Cup. One recent article let readers know Qatar would not require Covid vaccinations for fans. In another piece, Milenio sets out the details of Mexico’s participation in the cup—from match schedule to broadcasters, and from the cup’s theme song to suggestions on game day snacks for groups viewing on television.
In a third article, this one featuring news of an interview of an Argentina 1986 team member, Jorge Burruchaga, by Al Arabi Al Jadid in Qatar, Milenio suggested to Tata Martino, Mexico’s coach, that the interview contained strategic golden nuggets. It seems Burruchaga stated that one glaring Argentine team weakness is set plays: “Perhaps a weak point in Argentina’s team is the aerial game since they do not have tall players, thus set plays could become problematic.”
Saudi Arabian media are also not forecasting their team’s progression but are instead focusing on the training of the Saudi team which are taking place in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. News website, Sabq.or, provided several photos of the Saudi team practicing in preparation for their match against Honduras: “On the field, the players conducted their training session at the Emirates Palace Stadium under the supervision of coach Herve Renard.”
Polish Media, via wyborcza.pl, did not speculate on the Polish progression odds but did look at their opponents with an eye to providing helpful gossip. Wyborcza had an article about the Mexican national team’s scandals. The tone seemed catty as if enjoying their rival’s dilemmas and pointing out their weaknesses. The reported issues were with both Carlos Vela (whom coach Martino wants on the team) and Chicharito Hernandez (who the coach does not want). It seems both players were separated from the team because of their partying ways with Vela determining in 2019 he would retire from the national side and Chicharito still interested.
The news website commented: “The whole story is important because two of the top Mexican offensive players – Jesus Corona (Sevilla) and Raul Jimenez (Wolverhampton) – heal injuries. Marino called them up to the large squad in Qatar, but it is doubtful whether they will recover in time. In this situation, Vela and Hernandez could be very useful.”
Argentine Media are replete with stories of their team’s impending coronation, but they also balance that hubris with specific and realistic details. La Nacion, one of the largest circulation dailies, focused on the injuries to key players on the eve of the tournament: “With 20 minutes to go in the Betis [Spain] Europa League match in Bulgaria, Guido Rodriquez, one of [coach] Lionel Scaloni’s indispensables, who he selected to be on the team from the get-go, lay on the pitch with a muscle pull in his right thigh. Three-plus weeks away from Qatar he may just have time to recoup. As the natural replacement for Leandro Paredes, who is also injured, his health is a big deal, and the news of his injury is not positive.”
Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that Argentina are on a whole other level than their competitors and by a long shot. This bodes well for the three lesser teams as all know a good showing against the Albiceleste will likely give them a chance to sneak through should they beat their near-peers. The Poles know they have one of Argentina’s kryptonite weaknesses in their height and physicality and they will be looking to press that two-part advantage. Mexico know they get under the South American’s skin and are experts in so doing particularly under the guidance of their Argentine coach, Martino. Saudi Arabia, well, they are just hoping.
The issue of major import is how the group treats the one-cup contender within it. Messi and company could not have hand-picked a better group to prepare the Albiceleste for the tourney. A top team wants to make sure the group stage is where they slay all of their bugaboos. For Argentina, those are getting over their overconfidence and penchant to overlook minnows (Saudi Arabia). Their annoyance at lesser teams with the temerity to play them as equals (Mexico). And teams who match the Argentine’s tough tackling (not to say rough and unsportsmanlike) style with superior physicality and in this case also height (Poland). If Argentina can navigate each of their natural frailties successfully, they will be primed for the tougher competition ahead.
Argentina’s main concern, other than the above-mentioned, is their health. Frankly, several key players are hurting or just recovering from injury and whether they are ready and in form for Qatar is a real issue for Scaloni. Assuming they are doing well at show time, then Argentina may well think through their chances on their side of the bracket and come to the conclusion that the other side is an easier road to the final. If they do, a second-place finish might be worth pursuing. But that may be a level of cold calculation too far and thus they will likely win the group and remain on the side with their two World Cup nemeses Germany and Brazil.
Mexico is hoping to recapture their mojo and if they do, they will make this a lively group. The Tri match up well against Argentina and probably feel they are more technical than the Poles or Saudis—and they may be right about the latter. What they want is to get to Qatar with a settled squad and that is up to taciturn Martino. If he can leave his ego aside and pick the best Mexico has to offer, then the team has a real chance to progress.
Poland has had Robert Lewandowski around for some time and he has produced for them. Now it is time for the team to coalesce around their star and provide the type of defensive cover that will allow a moment or two of offensive brilliance to be decisive. If they can play to their strengths and Lewandowski is on, Poland could progress.
Saudi Arabia try hard and have a decent squad, but they are severely overmatched regardless of their comfort with the environment. Papa does not see them progressing.
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group B might unfold come this winter.
The Albiceleste need a big opening number to settle the nerves, bulk up on goal differential, and give Messi a few easy goals in his quest for further silverware. The gods give them their wishes.
In a dour match, with both teams aware a slip-up spells doom, the team taking the lead is unable to hold off their opponent who draws even and settles the tie in the only manner that is fair to what each brought to the contest.
The Poles, knowing this is their one gimmie match go all out to pile on the score and Lewandowski keeps pace with Messi for the Golden Boot sweepstakes. The Saudis pick up the pace, as best they can, and are able to draw one back to uphold their region’s honor.
In the key group match-up, Argentina slips up just enough to allow Ochoa to shine when it matters and for the Tri to claw a critical point from their betters. On the positive side for Argentina, Messi pulls ahead of Lewandowski in their scoring sweepstakes.
Lewandowski’s teammates pay him back for the years during which he was the only or major contributor to the match’s final outcome. Playing heroically the Poles keep all but di Maria off the scoreboard and Lewandowski evens the scoring sweepstakes depriving both Messi and his team of a painless Golden Boot run and progression respectively.
In a surprisingly lively contest, the Saudis showcase their best and leave the cup having scored thrice. Finally finding their misplaced mojo against Argentina, the Tri nevertheless drop their guard in their next game and play loose and easy knowing they will win and thus get through. But the Saudis are playing Mexico tough, and the North Americans need to put the hammer down in the second half to ensure their win. The Mexicans progress in second place on goal differential leaving Lewandowski out of the scoring sweepstakes and ensuring the Americas bring two teams into the Round of 16.
In the end, five colors progress Albiceleste (white and blue shirt with black shorts) and El Tri (red socks, white shorts, and green shirt).
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Argentina 2. Mexico.
Graphic illustration: World Cup 2022 Group C kits, Shutterstock ID 2197555811, by grebeshkovmaxim