Lionel Messi, the undisputed king of football – even before kicking a ball here – will again set off on a quest for the holy grail at the Lusail Stadium, the grandest and largest of the eight 2022 World Cup grounds.
There’s an ever-hanging cloud of expectation around the Argentine star to deliver a performance of virtuoso to not only end the Latin American nation’s long wait for the World Cup, but to also deliver this World Cup its own folklore that will stand the test of immortality like the otherworldly stories of many South American authors.
Raising the anxiety level of the press corps and the followers of their dispatches in hundreds of nations, the 35-year-old was present for just four of the 15-minute open training session two days before this eagerly awaited match. An Achilles injury had kept the heartthrob away from a Champions League and a Ligue 1 game for Paris Saint-Germain just ahead of the tournament. But the news from the Argentina camp indicates the absence from training was more to do with managing the workload of the team’s standout luminary.
Lisandro Martinez, Rodrigo De Paul, Angel Di Maria, Nicolas Otamendi and Juan Foyth, too, were missing in this knockabout arranged for the hungry 400-odd media crowd.
Messi is, thankfully, expected to start, part of a forward triangle with Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez at its tip. Cristian Romero, enjoying a standout season with Tottenham, with his settled partner Otamendi and full-backs Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna, has ensured a clean sheet in Argentina’s last five victories, which saw the Albiceleste scoring 16 goals. Messi’s PSG teammate Leandro Paredes, sitting in the heart of the midfield, will offer extra cover to the defence, which has dealt with too few heavyweight oppositions in Argentina’s astonishing 35-match unbeaten run. Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister and De Paul will offer the attacking thrust as the nation looks to shrug off the disappointments of the past 36 years.
The attention of the football universe, however, will only be on one man. Messi, with 12 goals and 14 assists in 19 matches, is enjoying his best club form in his 19th season as a professional. In national colours, his returns are even more astounding this year with 11 goals in seven games.
Saudi Arabia – whose Crown Prince shared the opening ceremony grand stage with the Emir of the host nation, signalling a further improvement of relations since the end of the Gulf world’s four-year economic blockade of Qatar – will try to do more than making a guest appearance in this yet-to-release movie that the fans want to watch only for its hero.
Herve Renard’s men don’t have the most positive record in their last six games with three draws and a loss. The side will miss the experience of forward Fahad Al-Muwallad, who failed a dope test in May. Its threat will come from the links with Salem Al-Dawsari operating on the left and Saleh Al-Shehri on the other side.
But the world and football hope that Argentina will take the sting out of this Arabian attack and set Messi on for a World Cup triumph, which he so richly deserves.
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