By Ben Morse, CNN
It was meant to be Lionel Messi’s crowning moment for Argentina — the tournament in which he steps out of Diego Maradona‘s shadow for the national team — but the 2022 World Cup has been a mixed experience for the 35-year-old so far.
Argentina was stunned by Saudi Arabia in its first game, before getting its campaign back on track with a 2-0 victory over Mexico in which Messi scored the opening goal.
It means that with just a game left in Group C, Argentina remains in the hunt to progress to the knockout stages in Messi’s fifth World Cup campaign.
Argentina sits second on three points, a point behind Group C leader Poland, knowing a win in its final game against the Polish will assure its progression.
Defender Lisandro Martinez said the team, including Messi, is only getting better.
“Everything comes down to details,” Martinez said on Tuesday in a press conference. “We saw it with Messi’s goal. Before that the match (against Mexico) was very tight.”
“We know what we are capable of. We can play better and we know we have not reached our best level yet. But we are trying,” he added.
Argentina faces a Poland team spearheaded by its own iconic striker, Robert Lewandowski, who scored his first World Cup goal last time out against Saudi Arabia.
The 34-year-old Lewandowski, who is also his nation’s all-time top scorer like Messi, missed a penalty in a damp squib of a 0-0 draw against Mexico in Poland’s opening game but redeemed himself with the second in the 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia.
And Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni was full of praise for Lewandowski, calling him a “top player.”
“It will be a privilege and pleasure to see him from up close as a football fan,” Scaloni said. “Is he at the same level as Messi? You just have to enjoy such a good player. Why compare one player with another. That’s not helpful.”
Following its famous victory over Argentina, a win for Saudi Arabia against Mexico will assure its first qualification for the last 16 since 1994, while a draw would mean it would need Poland to beat Argentina.
Saudi Arabia head coach Herve Renard said his team have defied expectations already.
“No one around the world thought that we could play with this level. Yes, in Saudi Arabia we know the players well, but they are unknown to the fans around the world,” Renard told a news conference after the Poland game. “We are still alive.”
Mexico’s hopes are much slimmer, needing to beat Saudi Arabia by at least a three-goal margin, with Poland not losing to Argentina.
Battle for final spot in Group D
The other group to come to a climax on Wednesday is Group D which sees Australia play Denmark and Tunisia face France.
Reigning World Cup champion France has already sealed its place in the next round with two wins from as many games.
However, the rest of the group remains in the balance with Australia on three points and both Denmark and Tunisia on a point apiece.
Australia has a great chance to progress to the last 16 for the first time since 2006 — a win will guarantee its progression, although a draw would suffice if Tunisia fails to beat France.
Forward Mathew Leckie reminisced about the Australia team’s successful run in Germany 16 years ago ahead of its crunch match on Wednesday.
“We’ve always believed that we can create something special,” Leckie told a news conference on Tuesday.
“When the Socceroos got out of the group in ’06 I was a proud fan and now we have the opportunity to be players and do that.
“We saw how proud it makes the people back home. So we’re doing it for the country, for ourselves, for our friends, for our family and that’s motivation in itself.”
Australia will be facing a Denmark team which has struggled to create clear-cut openings, despite looking defensively solid
Having scored 30 goals in 10 World Cup qualifiers, Denmark has scored just once in Qatar, leading Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand to jokingly suggest he might have to call up Norwegian striker Erling Haaland.
The day before Denmark’s key clash against Australia, Hjulmand kept his cards close to his chest when it came to the team he might pick on Wednesday.
“The way it looks now everyone is ready,” Hjulmand told the media. “We have 26 players they all deserve to play. They are all good enough and deserve to play.
“All we have to look at is what kind of technical approach should we take tomorrow, what structure should we play with, who do we know fits together.
“I trust all the players we have brought so there is many ways to do it.”
Australia vs. Denmark: 10am ET
Tunisia vs. France: 10am ET
Poland vs. Argentina: 2pm ET
Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico: 2pm ET
How to watch
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC
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