DOHA, Qatar — Two of the best players on the planet go head-to-head when Lionel Messi of Argentina and Robert Lewandowski of Poland meet with World Cup implications in what is likely Messi's final attempt to win the tournament.
That match is part of an intense Wednesday at the World Cup: Mexico could be eliminated from the group stage for the first time since 1978 and Saudi Arabi has a chance to advance after its opening-game upset over Argentina.
But the spectacle will be at Stadium 974 in Doha, where Messi and Lewandowski square off.
Poland leads the group and a draw is enough to advance to the round of 16. But after the shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in its opening match, Argentina is only guaranteed to advance with a victory. A draw could get Argentina into the next round depending on the other result.
A loss? Well, that would mean elimination and humiliation. Messi is playing in his record-tying fifth World Cup and, at 35 years old, he's unlikely to play in a sixth.
He knows it, too, and the devoted Argentina fanbase shed tears after Messi scored the crucial second-half goal to seal a 2-0 win over Mexico last week. Argentina has not been eliminated from the group stage since 2002.
“I think when the groups were drawn and we were put together, the whole world has been waiting for this match," Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said.
Poland is trying to advance out of the group stage for the first time since 1986, and the Poles last went unbeaten in all three first round games in 1982 en route to the semifinals. Lewandowski failed to convert a penalty in a 0-0 draw with Mexico, but he scored his first career World Cup goal in a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Messi and Lewandowski have never before played each other at the international level, but have gone head-to-head three times at the club level in the Champions League. Messi scored twice for Barcelona in a 2015 win and Lewandowski scored once each for Bayern Munich in victories over Barcelona in 2015 and 2020.
Michniewicz said the match is much bigger than two players and it will be team effort, not Messi or Lewandowski, that decides the game.
“It’s not Messi versus Lewandowski. It’s not tennis, it’s not 1-on-1. They are not serving to each other," the Poland coach said. “Robert needs his teammates, like Leo does. They rely on their teammates, they can’t do this alone, although these individual players can do a lot themselves.”
Mexico came to the World Cup with goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa desperate to advance past the round of 16 and play in an elusive “quinto partido” — a fifth game.
If Mexico doesn't make something happen against Saudi Arabia, there might not even be a “cuarto partido.”
El Tri hasn't advanced to the quarterfinals since Mexico hosted the 1986 tournament, but the team is now on the verge of elimination in group play. A loss to Saudi Arabia would end Mexico’s bid for an eighth straight trip to the World Cup’s knockout rounds.
The last time Mexico played at soccer’s biggest tournament and didn’t advance out of its group was in 1978.
But Mexico needs to do more than just win. Even with a victory, Mexico needs Poland to beat Argentina, and maybe even goal difference will determine Mexico's fate.
One problem: Mexico has yet to score any goals in Qatar. El Tri hasn’t scored in 384 straight minutes at the World Cup, dating back to their second group match at the 2018 tournament in Russia.
“In the next game we have no more chances,” Mexico forward Henry Martin said. “We have to score the goals that we can, and not worry what happens in the other game.”
Saudi Arabia pulled off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets ever when it beat Argentina 2-1 in its opener. The team reached the knockout stage in 1994 in its World Cup debut but hasn’t made it past the group stage since.
Saudi Arabia can advance with a win. A draw would also be enough if Poland beats Argentina.
“We will play to the last second of this tournament and we will not give up,” Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard said.
The reigning World Cup champions have already advanced to the round of 16 and that could give France a chance to rest some players against Tunisia in its final game of group play.
France beat Australia and Denmark in its opening games and it almost guaranteed Les Bleus to finish on top of Group D. After arriving in Qatar with Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku all ruled out with injuries, France lost Lucas Hernandez after only 13 minutes of its opening game with a ruptured ACL.
France could choose to rest Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann.
“There will be changes. Everyone’s ready to play," France coach Didier Deschamps said.
France has not won all three of its World Cup group matches since claiming its first title in 1998.
Tunisia hasn’t even won three matches in its World Cup history, but the team needs to beat France to have any chance of advancing.
Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri said before the tournament it was his “personal mission” to advance past the group stage and hinted he would quit otherwise.
“Let’s wait for the result of the match and we’ll see. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer your question after the match,” Kadri said ahead of the match against France. “We are still alive and we are still present.”
The Tunisians have never been past the group stage in five World Cups and their two wins were 40 years apart — against Mexico in 1978 and against Panama four years ago in Russia.
Australia has reached the round of 16 at the World Cup only once, in 2006. In fact, the Socceroos have only won three times in their last 18 World Cup matches.
“It was amazing to get that result and get that third win in a World Cup for Australia. But we’re not happy and satisfied with that,” striker Mitchell Duke said. “We want more and we do believe that we can get out of the group and we can get a result against Denmark and that’s our main objective now.”
A win on Wednesday against Denmark would advance Australia and a draw would also be enough unless France loses to Tunisia.
Denmark, which reached the semifinals at last year's European Championship, would also advance with a win over Australia. Denmark wants to qualify for the knockout stage at back-to-back World Cup tournaments for a second time, last done in 1998 and 2002.
The Danes have only failed to qualify from the group stage in one of their previous five appearances at the tournament. Denmark had a 0-0 draw against Tunisia in its opening game and followed with a 2-1 loss to France.
"It is very clear and it is very easy. We don’t have to make any calculations or think other options,” Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand said. “It is straightforward. We will try to win the match, that is it.”
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