With FIFA World Cup 2022 finally here, we bring you the lowdown on Group C, which consists of Mexico, Argentina, Poland, and Saudi Arabia.
The World Cup fever is finally here, with the tournament in Qatar being the first time that the quadrennial footballing extravaganza will be played out in the months of November and December since the first World Cup finals in 1930.
The rhetoric build-up to the FIFA World Cup has been tarnished by host nation Qatar’s controversial human rights record and several other controversies, including calls for Iran to be kicked out of the tournament, while Ecuador’s place at the World Cup has been re-affirmed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) only a fortnight before the tournament kicks off.
Regardless, the 22nd edition of the men’s FIFA World Cup tournament will feature 32 teams battling it out in the group phase after qualifying from five separate continents, including Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and North and Central America. However, only 16 will make it through to the knockout rounds.
Having taken a thorough look at Group A and Group B, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Group C, which pits together Lionel Messi’s Argentina with Robert Lewandowski-led Poland, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, making it an interesting group of nations with very different styles of play. Here’s an analysis of each of the teams and their chances of making it to the Round of 16.
Group C: Mexico, Argentina, Poland, Saudi Arabia
Nov. 22: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia; Mexico vs. Poland
Nov. 26: Poland vs. Saudi Arabia; Argentina vs. Mexico
Nov. 30: Poland vs. Argentina; Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico
Mexico have qualified for the seventh World Cup in a row and for every World Cup finals since 1994. That would be a tremendous feat for any other country but not for a football-crazy country like Mexico, where this is regarded as the bare minimum.
They had a routine run through CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualification. But it is safe to say they made a hash of it, with several nervy low-scoring wins and dire draws to make things scruffy. Mexico also could not buy a win against Canada and the USMNT in four attempts (D2, L2), despite being considered to be the heavyweights in the region.
This has led to criticism of manager Tata Martino’s methods, with his tactics being called into question. After all, Mexico showed a genuine lack of creativity in the final third, an ineffective midfield, poor finishing, and stale individual performances, both in qualifying and friendlies.
The former Barcelona head coach also did himself no favours by disregarding the up-and-coming talent and standout performers in Liga MX time and again and delegating the task of watching players live in games to his assistants.
In any case, El Tri finished second in the eight-team Hexagonal, tied on points with leaders Canada and separated only by goal difference. In theory, Mexico’s group-stage draw is favourable, putting them against Saudi Arabia, a Poland team that has not moved past the group stages since 1986, and contenders Argentina.
Despite their sluggish record, Mexico should have enough fuel in their tank to make an eighth consecutive Round of 16 appearance, as they have done in recent years. But the knockout stage has been another story.
Their 2-0 defeat at the hands of continental rivals Brazil in the Round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup marked, quite remarkably, the seventh consecutive World Cup in which they progressed to the Round of 16 only to be eliminated. Some of the exits have come in mysterious ways, including last-minute and extra-time losses.
The phenomenon has become known as the “quinto partido” — or “fifth game” — curse. In short, El Tri have failed to reach the ever-elusive fifth game or say the quarter-finals of the competition since the 1994 World Cup, many have come and tried but to no fruition. Can Tata Martino’s side buck the trend, which remains to be seen?
Mexico have a good mix of experienced heads and youthful exuberance across their options all over the pitch. Midfield is undoubtedly their strongest department, with seasoned campaigners Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado, complemented by Ajax star Edson Alvarez.
The 25-year-old tough-tackling anchorman is on the radar of a number of Europe’s powerhouses and will add steeliness to the ageing midfield. He is also very well-versed at cutting out danger at the source and is a very intelligent footballer. Up top, Mexico are heavily reliant on Raul Jimenez getting back to full fitness. If Jimenez’s fitness issues persist, Martino will leave himself short on senior options in the forward department.
Key Players: Hirving Lozano and Alexis Vega
With MLS stars Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez both likely to miss out for very different reasons – the former has altogether unofficially retired from international football and the latter had a spat with Martino at not making the recent squads – the task of providing the attacking impetus should lie on the shoulders of Napoli’s fleet-footed winger, Hirving Lozano.
Slippery as butter, agile, clever in possession, and off-the-ball movement, the 27-year-old could be a dynamite to handle when on the song. With injuries hindering Mexico’s frontline, El Tri fans will be excited that the winger has come back into form just in time for the World Cup, as seen by his recent clutch performances for table-topper Napoli in Serie A.
Vega, a talented 24-year-old attacker, has the potential to be a World Cup surprise package and could earn a big European move off the back of it if he makes a big impact on the biggest stage in football. He should get into the starting lineup, given the absence of Jesus Corona on the flanks.
His explosive pace, coupled with smart runs and great scoring instincts, makes him an important member of Tata Martino’s side. After bagging 13 goal contributions from 26 Liga MX appearances last season, the 24-year-old Deportivo Guadalajara has three goals and four assists to his name this season. His versatility will be a bonus for the Mexicans as well.
Argentina are one of the pre-tournament favourites, and for good reason: they are riding an imperious run of form, a 35-match unbeaten streak dating back to 2019. They will establish a new record for international football should they go undefeated in the group stages in Qatar.
The level of play has risen after falling 4-3 to France in the Round of 16 during a dismal 2018 edition. They have fared really well under the management of Lionel Scaloni, who guided them to the Copa America title after a 28-year-long wait in 2021, beating Brazil 1-0 in the final. More recently, they trounced European champions Italy 3-0 in the Finalissima at Wembley Stadium.
La Albiceleste also dominated their World Cup qualifying campaign and will be motivated, with captain Lionel Messi possibly having the last hurrah to win the World Cup winners’ medal. In addition, Angel Di Maria is also nearing the end of his decorated career. It remains to be seen whether this squad will be sufficient enough in quality to conquer the world, but there is justified optimism among Argentina fans, to say the least.
While they may not have the embarrassment of riches like Brazil, who are jam-packed with attacking talent and underpinned by stellar-looking midfield options, this Argentina side is a finished product, with a clear identity and a settled roster, which means that players know their roles and the synergy shines in their eye-catching passing sequence. They all have excellent work-rate and fight as one unit when under siege.
It also demonstrates the cohesion and consistency that Scaloni has been able to cultivate since his unimpressive rookie appointment in 2018. The squad is looking in formidable shape heading to Qatar, with the perfect blend of young, prime, and seasoned players.
Of course, they are going to have a deadly attack, one that, on paper, is as good as it gets. Aside from the well-known attacking trio of Messi, Di Maria, and Martinez, there is plenty of firepower in reserve, with young guns Julian Alvarez, Nicolas Gonzalez, Giovanni Simeone, and Angel Correa sharpening their attacking weapons in anticipation of their moment to shine.
There is experience at the back; Nicolas Otamendi is the leader in defence, strong and physical. But, at 34, he is slowing down. The good news is that he has legs around him for cover, with snappy, aggressive tacklers like Lisandro Martinez or Cristian Romero generally deployed alongside him.
Youngster Enzo Fernandez drew the attention of European teams after excelling for River Plate in 2021 and 2022. He is now a mainstay for Portuguese powerhouse Benfica and has impressed with his solid all-action displays in the Champions League. He should also get valuable minutes in midfield.
Argentina’s standard is relatively high across the board, but they will still look to a couple of key performers for leadership and moments of inspiration in Qatar.
Key Players: Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martinez, and Angel Di Maria
Who else but Captain fantastico? Much of Argentina’s hopes are placed on the little magician from Rosario. This 2022 World Cup will be the last dance on the biggest stage for a player who, despite redefining the very landscape of football, has never lifted the prestigious trophy. He will be desperate to make his final chance count and match Diego Armando Maradona’s legacy.
The Argentine wizard came very close to lifting the 2014 World Cup when his team reached the final. But as of yet, Messi’s only major international title has been the recent 2021 Copa America triumph.
After a rare slump in form last season that saw him miss out on the 30-man shortlist for the 2022 Ballon d’Or award, Messi has regained his form at PSG this season and looks much closer to the version of himself at Barcelona that helped his rise to become one of, if not, the game’s greatest-ever players. Messi’s dangerous playmaking skills have taken another step this season, while his ability from free-kicks is ever-so apparent.
On the pitch, his lethal chemistry with Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria in the final third is highly efficient and elite when it comes to unlocking, or say, wearing down and picking apart opposing defences by exploiting spaces.
The 2018 World Cup did not go as planned for Robert Lewandowski and Poland. With high expectations placed on them after making the finals after a 12-year absence, they experienced their worst nightmare by dropping out at the group stage, with Lewandowski coming unstuck throughout the group phase. And the spotlight will be on them to put things right four years later in a more amicable group.
Poland did not cover themselves in glory at UEFA Euro 2020 either, crashing out in the group stage after finishing bottom of their group, even though Lewandowski scored three goals.
Poland had a solid if unspectacular qualification campaign, winning six games and drawing twice in their ten Group I games, although the six wins arrived by beating minnow nations such as Andorra, Albania, and San Marino twice, only good enough for second place as they finished five points adrift of group winners England but progressed to the four-team playoff bracket.
They received a bye through the semi-finals, with their opponent, Russia, expelled from the World Cup qualification process in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Thereafter, Poland cruised to a 2-0 victory over Sweden in the playoff final in Chorzow courtesy of goals from Robert Lewandowski and Piotr Zielinski to put a stamp on the ticket to Qatar.
Speaking of Zielinski, the Napoli playmaker has taken his game to new heights, playing his part in Napoli’s Scudetto charge. He could come in handy for head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz’s transitional style of play, with more emphasis placed on defensive stability.
Poland do not actively try to dominate possession or take a high volume of shots. So when they try to hit a team on the break, it becomes imperative that they create incisive plays in order to feed the striker with quality service and chances.
Zielinski could be that creative presence behind Lewandowski, breaking the opposition’s midfield lines and generating shot-creating actions while also trying to score himself with deadly late runs into the box and drifting into wide areas to create unpredictability.
While the Eagles can pack a punch on their day with their respectable attacking talent around Lewandowski, and have a chance to come out of this group, they must overcome the inconsistencies that have plagued them in prior tournaments. Otherwise, another disappointing World Cup campaign beckons.
Key Player: Robert Lewandowski
Of course, Lewandowski is the star in this Polish national side, and that too, by a long distance. He is the difference-maker of this team, especially in attack, as he remains the only reliable source of goals with 76 goals from 134 international appearances. He found the back of the net nine times to power Poland through the qualifiers against Qatar.
Indeed, the prolific Pole is treated as a national treasure back in his homeland. Not only does Lewandowski score all-important goals, but the Poland captain has singlehandedly dragged his nation through obscurity on countless occasions and leads by example.
One of the best pure goalscorers of the current generation, he has a wide array of finishes in his locker. But the question remains whether the supporting cast around him can pull the strings and provide him with the required service.
Ageing like fine wine, if anything, his potency in front of goal is getting better with age, having already racked up 17 goals from 16 games for new club Barcelona following his €45 million switch from Bayern Munich this past summer. And Lewandowski will aim to carry over his form and lead his country as far in the competition as possible.
The Green Falcons have been one of the most successful Asian countries in recent times, only behind South Korea and perhaps Japan in terms of squad quality.
They breezed through their qualification group with flying colours, picking up some big results along the way. Saudi Arabia edged Japan and Australia 1-0 at home and played out a draw in Sydney against the latter, with their only qualifying defeat arriving in the reverse fixture at Japan.
This will be Saudi Arabia’s sixth participation at the World Cup since making their debut in 1994 when they made it to the round of 16 in the United States. The Middle East outfit have exited the World Cup in the group stages in each of their past four appearances since, and it is tough to imagine that changing this time in Qatar.
They altogether failed to qualify in 2010 and 2014 and settled for third place in Group A during the most recent edition in 2018. That said, head coach Herve Renard has tried to make them incredibly resilient, disciplined, and mean at the back, with the Green Falcons’ last eight games (including World Cup warm-up friendlies) ending with either a 1-0 or 1-1 scoreline (W3, D4, L1).
The attacking trio of Salem Al-Dawsari, Saleh Al-Shehri, and Fahad Al-Muwallad are the team’s creative heartbeat with the ability to unlock Asian defences. But their biggest tests will come against opponents outside of their home continent. The former combined for 14 of the 34 goals they scored throughout the qualifying cycle; therefore, they will be crucial to the Saudi attack in this competition.
Key Player: Salem Al-Dawsari
Saudi Arabia, alongside the hosts Qatar, will be the only country to have a fully home-based roster. And Al-Hilal winger, Salem Al-Dawsari, has been the standout performer for club and country in recent seasons, as well as one of Asia’s best players.
The 31-year-old had a brief loan spell in Spain with La Liga side Villarreal but has otherwise spent his whole career with Riyadh-based outfit Al Hilal, racking up 132 goal contributions from just over 300 appearances in the process.
He powered them to two AFC Champions League titles in 2019 and 2021, and is widely regarded as one of the very best forwards in Asia, having a hand in 14 goals in just 21 games in the Saudi League last season (9 goals, 5 assists).
The winger was impressive all the way along the Road to Qatar and will play a vital role here with his previous World Cup experience, having started all three group-stage games for the Green Falcons in Russia in 2018 and scoring a last-minute winner in the final group game against Egypt.
With technical ability, flair, self-confidence, and an eye for goal, the jet-heeled winger could be a handful to deal with and is surely one to watch out for by opposition defences.
Likely to Qualify: Argentina and Mexico
Group C could well end up being one of the most unpredictable brackets in the World Cup.
On paper, Argentina are overwhelming favourites to finish as table-toppers and breeze into the knockout rounds as winners. But Mexico and Poland could push them all the way. As for Saudi Arabia, they cruised through qualifying, so we can expect more from them at this World Cup.
The Middle East nation have the potential to be the whipping boys of this group, but they will turn out in a familiar climate. They also have extended preparation time since most of their talents are not involved in Europe’s most intensive club football seasons.
There is also the extra layer to this group that all attention will be on Lionel Messi, with this likely to be his final World Cup. One last hurrah! Handed the chance to complete his storied trophy cabinet.
It would be crazy to think Argentina will bow out at the group stages since they are one of the prime candidates to go the whole hog and win the World Cup this year, with this being their most balanced iteration in recent memory.
The first matchday in Group C might well give a strong idea about the battle for the second qualifying berth behind Argentina. Mexico have more often than not managed to find a way out of the group stage; it is in the knockout rounds the infamous curse comes into play.
It is probable that Saudi Arabia will not make it out of the group and leave Qatar early, having won only three of their last 16 World Cup games. The Green Falcons will do well to prevent Poland from qualifying for the next round with a major upset.
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