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9 days to World Cup 2022: Group C preview

Group C consists of Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland. Whereas the South American’s ambitions reach much further than just winning the group, Poland hope to advance to their first knockout phase in 36 years, in what might be the last World Cup appearance for its super star Robert Lewandowski.

Argentina:

Coach:

Former wing-back Lionel Scaloni has World Cup experience from his playing days, as he was part of a team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals in 2006.

Going under the radar as a footballer, the Argentine has gained recognition as a national team coach, helping its star Lionel Messi finally lift the Copa America trophy in 2021.

Scaloni has managed to build a team spirit, which was arguably the biggest challenge for many of his predecessors. For years, the golden generation, with many conflicted stars who could not accept the role of Messi’s support, had been unable to win any major tournament prior to 2021.

Style of play:

The Albicelestes team have been effectively implementing a 4-3-3 formation with a single pivot. They capitalise on their abundance up front, sending in wingers that have an experience in playing as a striker. That makes Argentina a very deadly team given that danger could come from any of them.

In this scenario, Messi most likely will not be bound to any position and may be sometimes man-marked which could create space for strikers like Lautaro Martinez.

Against weaker teams, Argentina could start with a 4-4-2, with Messi as one of the strikers.

Key player:

Lionel Messi finally caught a breath in PSG and looks pretty confident as a playmaker. The former Barca star scored 12 goals and recorded 14 assists in just 18 official games for the French side.

Apart from his indisputable genius, now, he has a team that is ready to sacrifice themselves to utilise his skills instead of Messi being the one that constantly pulls Argentina out of trouble.

Keep an eye on:

The fast-paced Lautaro Martinez is a key player at Inter Milan and has emerged as a first-choice striker in the national team, regardless of the formation. He is set to relieve Messi from some of his attacking burden and can use his strength in the penalty area when the opposition drop into a deep defensive line.

World Cup pedigree:

The double world champions from 1978 and 1986 have a nemesis named Germany. Were it not for them in 1990 and 2014, Argentina would have boasted with a total of four titles.

We expect:

It would be a surprise if Argentina came second in Group C. Although the team has a number of injuries, that is counter-balanced by the in-form Messi, should enable them to overcome their rivals.

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Saudi Arabia:

Coach:

Arguably the most recognised face of the Saudi collective, Hevre Renard had stints in Ligue 1 sides Sochaux and Lille, but is most known for his work in Africa. The Frenchman coached Zambia (twice), Angola, Ivory Coast and Morocco, which, in 2018, he took to their first World Cup in 20 years.

Renard is also the first manager to win the African Cup of Nations with two different teams (Zambia 2012, Ivory Coast 2015).

Style of play:

Saudi Arabia is a team that heavily relies on defence and fast counterattacks. They conceded only four goals in their last eight games, but scored barely three in return. The preferred formation is 4-3-3, although not much is known about recent developments as most of their friendlies were played behind closed doors. All of the players are based in the national league.

Key player:

As the team is lacking big stars, Salem Al-Dawsari looks to be the one that will pull the strings in the attacking phase. The 31-year-old winger is one of the most valuable players among the Saudi Arabia squad, he has also gained fame on the continent after superb performances in the Asian Champions League.

Keep an eye on:

When fit, Salman Al-Faraj is the captain of his national team, introducing creativity to the mostly defensive midfield. The 33-year-old skipper has a lot of experience, having scored at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. However, he sustained an injury in one of the recent friendlies and is still racing against the clock to make it to Qatar.

World Cup pedigree:

This will be the sixth appearance for the Green Eagles at the World Cup. However, only in their debut in 1994 did they manage to go beyond the group stage, when they were knocked out by Sweden in the last 16.

We expect:

Any point on the board in the group stage would be considered a surprise. Nevertheless, the team remains a mystery and could hold off more renowned rivals with a solid defence.

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Mexico:

Coach:

Following the MLS title win with Atlanta United in 2018, Gerardo “Tata” Martino took over Mexico amid high hopes from the federation. Yet, his tenure has been quite turbulent and, as a result of the Mexican football association’s reorganisation, he is likely to leave after the World Cup, according to the Athletic.

Aside from qualifying for the World Cup, Martino’s team won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2019, but lost in the final to the US two years later.

Style of play:

Mexico tends to play an attacking 4-3-3 twitch can alternate to a 4-2-3-1 with Ajax’s Edson Alvarez and Betis player Andres Guardado acting as double pivots. The latter is arriving in Qatar for a remarkable fifth World Cup!

Martino’s side has a real problem with strikers, as in-form Gimenez from Feyenoord has recently sustained an injury. Rodrigo Funes Mori has still not fully recovered, while fatigue and hip problems put Raul Jimenez’s World Cup dream in jeopardy.

Key player:

With the entire Napoli team flying in domestic and international competitions, Hirving Lozano is living up to the expectations of coach Luciano Spaletti as well. Although being a part of rotation among the wingers, the Mexican has missed only two games this season.

Usually playing as an inverted winger, Lozano contributed to a total of six Napoli goals, including a goal and an assist in the hard-fought 2:0 victory against Empoli.

Keep an eye on:

Legend has it that every time the World Cup comes, Guillermo Ochoa, an everyday solid keeper, turns into a mix of prime Manuel Neuer and Iker Casillas. The Mexican goalie has produced a couple of masterclass performances at previous tournaments, significantly contributing to Mexico’s progress from the group stage. Just like Guardado, this will be the 37-year-old Ochoa’s fifth World Cup, and probably his last big tournament.

World Cup pedigree:

Mexico is a regular participant at the world’s top football competition. They reached quarter finals on two occasions: 1970 and 1986, when the tournaments were held on home soil. The Mexicans have consistently made it to the World Cup knockout stage since 1994, but were unable to go beyond the last 16 phase.

We expect:

The injury-tormented Mexicans are aiming for their eighth group qualification in a row, but will face tough rivals in Poland in their very first match. According to the bookmakers, both teams have an equal chance of getting through to the knockout phase.

Poland:

Coach:

Czesław Michniewicz took over the reins in a highly unstable moment, when previous coach Paulo Sousa resigned before the playoffs. Renowned for his ability to prepare the team for a specific rival, he beat Sweden 2:0 as Poland made it to their second consecutive World Cup.

Michniewicz enjoyed a particularly successful tenure as an U-21 national team manager, eliminating Portugal in the Youth Euro qualifiers and earning shocking victories against Belgium and Italy at the tournament. Rather than calling up the best players available at all cost, he would rather trust those whom he has previously worked with.

Style of play:

Over the last couple of years Poland has been struggling with a 3-5-2 formation, having no in-form centre backs and overly attack-oriented wing-backs. That has changed since the emergence of the talented Nicola Zalewski and Matty Cash receiving a Polish passport.

Yet, the problem with full backs stacks and Michniewicz is reportedly considering switching back to 4-5-1 or 4-4-2 which, at the moment, suits Poland better. That would also explain why the Polish coach called up four wingers.

Poland has real troubles in midfield, seriously lacking any in form players. The coach sidelined Leeds’ Mateusz Klich and Karol Linetty from Torino, both of whom having failed to deliver any convincing performances during Michniewicz’s tenure.

Key player:

One of the best players on the planet, Robert Lewandowski is the central man in the team, involved in Poland’s every attack. His influence on his teammates is even greater than Messi has in Argentina, which, sometimes, can intimidate and limit his colleagues who seek Lewandowski in the penalty area at the cost of other, more potentially advantageous options.

Nevertheless, the in-form Lewandowski is capable of single-handedly ripping defence’s apart and all the rivals’ attention will be focused on him. The Pole would love to finally score at the World Cup, as his failure to find the net at Russia 2018 still rankles.

Keep an eye on:

With Lewandowski’s permanent class being indisputable, there is a certain player whose inconsistency for the national team frustrates fans in Poland. Yet, Piotr Zieliński is having the time of his life at Napoli, controlling the buildup pace and setting his teammates up like it was a piece of cake. Polish fans have more reasons to be optimistic taking into consideration his latest disposition under coach Michniewicz. The 28-year-old Zieliński was one of the stand out performers in the recent UEFA Nations’ League matches against power houses Netherlands and Belgium, as well as a solid Wales outfit.

World Cup pedigree:

Poland is coming to the fourth World Cup this century, but their “golden age” is way past them. The streets will never forget the spectacular team which took third place in 1974 – the feat repeated eight years later with Zbigniew Boniek playing a focal role. Michniewicz and his side will try to break their “group stage curse” and qualify for the knockout phase for the first time since 1986.

We expect:

If Poland can find the right formula to mask their weaknesses and make use of their most talented individuals, they should have too much for Mexico and beat them to second spot in the group. Although the Mexicans are 13 places ahead in the FIFA ranking, the Poles possess more match winners.

Much will come down to their clash on November 22, as three points would give the Poles the confidence to push on. Whereas defeat could see them enter the tie with Saudi’s nervously.


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