DOHA, Qatar (AP)Lose and go home. That’s the harsh fact facing Argentina as the team heads into its crucial World Cup match against Mexico.
Argentina arrived in Qatar as a favorite but suffered one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history with a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening match. Now Argentina is in danger of elimination Saturday, when anything but a win or draw would mean an early Group C knockout for the Albiceleste.
Argentina has only failed to advance out of the group stage twice in the last 60 years, in 1962 and 2002. And in what is likely Lionel Messi’s fifth and final appearance on soccer’s biggest stage, Argentina has become something of a laughingstock in Qatar.
”Where is Messi? We broke his eye!” fans have been singing in Arabic, using a slang expression meaning to bring shame on a person.
”We always said we were going to look to win every game,” said Messi, ”and now more than ever.”
The loss to Saudi Arabia was Argentina’s fourth defeat in its last six World Cup matches, and also ended its 36-match unbeaten streak that stretched for more than three years.
Now goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said Saturday’s match against Mexico must be approached as its ”first World Cup final” if Argentina wants to continue playing in Qatar.
”We’re hurting a lot from our first defeat and on top of that at the World Cup,” he said. ”We expected to play like it was a final, but we didn’t do that. After we scored the first goal we relaxed a bit and we paid for that. Saturday will be our first World Cup final.”
Argentina has beaten Mexico in its last 10 meetings dating to the 2004 Copa America, and it won all three of its previous World Cup matches against Mexico at the World Cup, in 1930, 2006 and 2010.
Mexico, meanwhile, played to a 0-0 draw in its opening match against Poland. Mexico has failed to score in its last three World Cup matches – two losses and a draw – dating to group play in Russia in 2018.
Guillermo Ochoa saved a Robert Lewandowski penalty kick in the match against Poland and the 37-year-old goalkeeper, playing in his fifth World Cup, has never made it past the round of 16. Mexico has been knocked out in that round in its last seven appearances and last reached the quarterfinals in 1986 when it hosted the World Cup.
”Everything, I would trade everything to get to the quinto partido (fifth game),” he said.
Mexico is coached by Gerardo Martino, who led his native Argentina from 2014 to 2016 until back-to-back losses in the Copa America final led him to quit.
”I know where I was born, the name of the hospital, the year and the characteristics of my city in Argentina, but I have to do the impossible for Mexico to win, I can’t do anything else,” Martino said.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni hadn’t lost a match before the opening game defeat by Saudi Arabia.
”There is no other choice but to get up and move on,” Scaloni said. ”They made us favorites, but in a World Cup these things can happen. You have to work on the aspects that didn’t go well.”
Saudi Arabia was an overwhelming underdog and pulled off the upset against Argentina, and will again be the underdog Saturday against Poland.
Saudi Arabia has lost eight straight and nine of its last 10 World Cup matches against European teams. Included in that run was an 8-0 loss to Germany in 2002, a game forward Saleh Al Shehri said was too long ago to matter to this current squad.
”That was a defeat in the past,” said Al Shehri. ”I think we, as a country, want to get back and go up to the top as a team. And I guess in the 20 years, we worked a lot, we worked hard. Now, in 2022, in Qatar, we made history, and there’s still more to come.”
For Poland, star Robert Lewandowski is struggling to find the net and hasn’t scored in his four previous World Cup matches on 11 shots and a failed penalty in a 0-0 draw against Mexico.
In fact, Poland attempted only six shots against Mexico and has now had six goalless draws in 35 World Cup matches.
”There’s room for improvement going forward, we have to risk more,” Lewandowski said. ”It’s very hard for a forward to track so far back. But if the coach has these tactics, then we have to adjust. Of course, as a forward I wish for more of the ball.”
France overcame a slew of injuries – including the loss of striker and Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema with a thigh injury on the eve of the tournament – for an easy 4-1 defeat of Australia in its opening match.
The defending World Cup champions next play Denmark on Saturday and a win would push France through to the round of 16.
The victory over Australia made France the first reigning champion to win its opening World Cup match of a tournament since Brazil in 2006, but only four champions have won their opening two matches of a World Cup campaign.
France is trying to become the first team since Spain in 2010 to win six consecutive World Cup matches. Denmark, meanwhile, has drawn its last three matches including against Tunisia in its opening game.
Tunisia and Australia meet for just the third time in history, with the last match a 2-0 Tunisia victory in the 2005 Confederations Cup.
Tunisia has lost just one of its last 10 matches but opened the World Cup with a goalless draw against Denmark.
Australia had won five straight before France routed the Socceroos 4-1 in their opening match.
Australia coach Graham Arnold called France ”bigger, stronger and faster,” but is confident his squad will be ready for Tunisia.
”We’ve got to be ready for that war,” Arnold said. ”They are aggressive and they’re going to have 40,000 fans behind them and it’s going to be a truly amazing experience again for everyone.”
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