After avoiding disaster on matchday two against Mexico at Qatar 2022, Lionel Messi's Argentina will once again put survival on the line on Wednesday as they face Robert Lewandowski's Poland for a place in the last 16.
A defeat on the final round of Group C fixtures would eliminate the Albiceleste from the World Cup, but a win over the European side would see them qualify and most likely top the group. A draw would only allow them to finish second at best and would mean they depend on the result of the other match in the group: Saudi Arabia v Mexico.
With Poland going into the third matchday on four points, Argentina and Saudi Arabia on three, and Mexico registering just one to date, everything is wide open in this group, which promises a thrilling conclusion.
"Poland is [a] very difficult [opponent], they all play differently [when they face Argentina]. And they don't just change because of Leo [Messi], but because of the other players we have and the respect they have for Argentina. That magnifies the importance of the match. We're going to win the game, which is what we all want," Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said on Saturday after beating Mexico.
That match served to lift the national team's spirits and turn the page on the disastrous 2-1 opening match defeat to Saudi Arabia, who ended Argentina's three-year 36-game unbeaten run of games without defeat.
Messi has scored a goal in both of his team's two games so far in Qatar, taking his total tally in World Cups to eight, equalling Diego Maradona yet still two short of the scoring record held by an Argentine player in this competition: the 10 scored by Gabriel Batistuta across tournaments.
Argentina's skipper will on Wednesday become the country's most-capped World Cup player by reaching 22 games, surpassing Maradona's 21.
The Maradona comparison looms large for Messi, who is desperate to lead his team to the World Cup as his illustrious predecessor did in Mexico 36 years ago.
"This is a release for the whole dressing room, a joy. It gives us peace of mind to depend on us," said the current day occupant of the number 10 shirt after defeating Mexico.
Wednesday's match will also pit two of the tournament's biggest superstars, Messi and Lewandowski, against each other.
The latter, who currently plays for FC Barcelona, shook off the curse of never having scored a goal at a World Cup last Saturday. He did so by guiding his team to victory over Saudi Arabia after missing a penalty in the opening match.
Poland will be leaning heavily on their star to get out of their group, something they failed to achieve in their last two major tournaments (World Cup 2018, Euro 2020).
Another influential Polish player looks tobe goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, who did not concede a goal in the first two games and saved a penalty against Saudi Arabia.
"With the Juventus goalkeeping coach, we have a method to analyse penalty takers. Messi, I'm studying you! I can't wait to play against Argentina," he said at a press conference this week.
Qualifying for the last 16 is the objective for both sides, but to do so in top spot is particularly important as it allows either side to avoid facing current champions France, who will finish top of Group D barring a huge catastrophe.
The match between Argentina and Poland will be played at the 974 stadium in Doha. On Monday, Brazil beat Switzerland 1-0 at the same venue and several players from the Seleçao afterwards complained that the pitch was damaged after so many games.
Control of the ball will be essential, but it may not be so easy.
by Diego Reniares, AFP