Sat | Jan 28, 2023

Messi, Argentina feeling the pressure

Published:Saturday | November 26, 2022 | 12:10 AM
Lionel Messi warms up during Argentina’s official training yesterday.  Argentina will face Mexico in a crucial Group C World Cup  match in Doha, Qatar today.
Lionel Messi warms up during Argentina’s official training yesterday. Argentina will face Mexico in a crucial Group C World Cup match in Doha, Qatar today.

DOHA, Qatar (AP):

A chant has been doing the rounds among Saudi Arabia supporters – and even some from Brazil – in the fan parks and streets of Doha at the World Cup.

“Where is Messi? We broke his eye!” they sing in Arabic, using a slang expression meaning to bring shame on a person.

Messi and his Argentina team are being mocked after a humbling 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia that has left their presence at the tournament in big – and completely unforeseen – danger.

Argentina need to immediately bounce back against Mexico today, otherwise an embarrassing early exit awaits.

“We always said we were going to look to win every game,” Messi said, “and now more than ever.”

A compatriot – indeed the team’s former coach – could mastermind the fatal blow to Argentina.

Gerardo Martino led his native Argentina from 2014-16, losing the Copa America final in back-to-back years in that time before quitting.

Now Martino is Mexico’s coach and looking to guide the team into the last 16 – perhaps at the expense of Argentina – and beyond. After all, Mexico have famously lost their first match of the knockout stage in each of the last seven World Cups, twice to Argentina, in 2006 and 2010.

This time, the teams’ meeting comes in the group stage but it already has the feel of a do-or-die occasion just seven days into the tournament, especially for Argentina.

“Now it has ended up being three finals for each of us,” said Martino, whose team tied their opening Group C game with Poland 1-1.

FIRST CRISIS

This is Lionel Scaloni’s first crisis as Argentina coach – he hadn’t lost a game before the Saudis’ rally at Lusail Stadium on Tuesday – and it remains to be seen how he reacts. Will he give the same players a chance to make amends? Or did he see enough bad things in the opening group game to necessitate some changes to his lineup?

Centre back Cristian Romero, full backs Nahuel Molina and Nicolás Tagliafico, and midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes seem most at risk. Of course, Messi is going nowhere from the starting lineup, even if he could be deployed differently.

Scaloni is sure about one thing, though.

“We will not change our style after what happened on Tuesday,” Scaloni said. “We will play the same way.”

Argentina’s 36-match unbeaten run ended with the loss to Saudi Arabia, and Scaloni said he was prepared for it.

“For a long time, everything was perfect for us. Everything was joy,” he said. “I was the first to be ready for that blow ... It would have been great to continue on that streak but that’s not possible.

“Luckily enough, that came in our first match. What’s important for us is facing every match like it’s our last one. A match can be lost but it’s how you bounce back, how you rise up.”

Mexico have never beaten Argentina in three attempts at the World Cup, and Martino’s worst defeat as Mexico coach was at the hands of his countrymen. That was in September 2019 when Lautaro Martínez scored a hat trick in a 4-0 win.

Argentina will take a win of any kind on Saturday back at Lusail Stadium, where the World Cup final will also be played on December 18. It would be folly for either team to be looking that far ahead.