In a clash that is headlined by Argentina legend Lionel Messi and Polish all-time leading scorer Robert Lewandowski, an even bigger talking point on the night comes by way of the fact that one of these two sides could be sent packing and denied passage into the round of 16, with Messi undoubtedly on a mission in what is sure to be his final World Cup tournament as part of a glistening career at the pantheon of the beautiful game.
But with the reality that Messi is likely to never again grace the global game at a World Cup has come immense pressure on the shoulders of Diego Maradona’s heir apparent, who has only ever managed one major international honor in service of his country and has still yet to match Maradona’s efforts in 1986.
This winter was billed as perhaps Messi’s best chance at lifting the World Cup trophy in what would be the best possible send-off for the 35-year-old after many pundits have suggested pre-tournament that the current Argentine squad offers one of the deepest pools of balanced talent in recent memory if not at least across the entirely of Messi’s international career. Their 36-match unbeaten run that lasted for over three years coming into Qatar was the best run of form of any side in competitive action, but a shock 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia put that run to bed and already thrust Messi and Argentina on the back foot despite his goal from the penalty spot to open the scoring early on.
Despite the insistence that the current squad is good enough to not overly rely on Messi to garner results as it has for years in the past, that trend has already surfaced in Qatar and was fully on display in their vital 2-0 win over Mexico in which Argentina struggled to truly break down the CONCACAF outfit until another moment of brilliance from Messi put the Copa America holders in front.
And with data showing that Messi leads all Argentine players in goals, assists, shots, key passes, and dribbles per WhoScored, it certainly does appear that those around him in the team are once more looking to him for inspiration when all else fails. This falls in stark contrast to other top dogs in the tournament in the vein of France, Portugal, Brazil, or England, who have all had a myriad of key performers stand up and be counted.
Though the irony that many suggest Maradona lifted Argentina on his shoulders in 1986 while leading the nation to win its second World Cup, the notion that Messi may have to do the same in Qatar will likely not end in the same desired result.