DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi begins his World Cup-defining legacy with a game against probably the weakest opponent the Argentine star will face in Qatar.
Riding a 36-game unbeaten streak, Argentina opens the group stage on Tuesday against Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament.
It seems like an ideal opportunity for Messi to take his tally of international goals towards a century (he currently stands at 91) in what is surely a desperate attempt to reach the men’s leading mark of 117, owned by his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo..
The way Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni treats Messi for this particular game, which will take place at the 80,000-seat Lusail Iconic Stadium, could be instructive given the captain’s fitness has been handled ahead of the World Cup.
Messi trained individually on Friday and Saturday due to what the Argentine Football Federation described as “muscle overload.” That raises questions about whether Messi will play the full 90 minutes against Saudi Arabia.
Not that it should take that long.
The Saudis may have made it through the Asian qualifiers with relative comfort, but they tend to struggle on football’s highest stage, reaching the round of 16 just once in their five World Cup appearances.
They began the 2018 tournament with a 5-0 loss to Russia, the host nation.
Elsewhere, Argentina opened that World Cup with a disappointing 1-1 draw with tiny Iceland, in a match in which Messi saved a penalty, which immediately put the Albiceleste under pressure.
That’s something the team is eager to avoid again.
“I missed, we tied and then the trouble came,” Messi recalled in a recent interview. “The first game is key because if you are going to play Mexico with the three points from the Saudi Arabia game, it is something else.”
The Argentines are unlikely to stumble this time. Champions of the Copa América in 2021 for their first major title in 28 years, a national record unbeaten streak, one shy of tying the world record set by Italy from 2018-21.
Scaloni, the somewhat accidental coach of Argentina, has turned his team into an extremely balanced unit and has returned to being a major force in world football. Where, many believe, it belongs.
Messi is obviously the star at the center of it all and is looking to finally win the World Cup. to boost his position as arguably the greatest soccer player of all time.
By playing against Saudi Arabia, Messi will become the first Argentine player to play in five World Cups, one more than Diego Maradona and Javier Mascherano.
Scaloni has had to deal with injuries to midfielder Giovani Lo Celso and forwards Nicolás González and Joaquín Correa in the run-up to the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia will be well-backed at the World Cup because it shares Qatar’s only land border with the outside world, and fans will flock across to attend the match at the tournament’s largest venue.
Under French coach Hervé Renard, the Saudis have been preparing for several weeks after domestic competitions were halted so players could focus on the World Cup.
“We are ready for this fabulous tournament,” Renard said.
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