The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner is about to enter his fifth and final World Cup, four years after Argentina’s turbulent campaign in Russia, which ended in the last 16.
Lionel Scaloni, an assistant to Jorge Sampaoli in 2018, has since taken over at the top, harboring a genuine belief that Argentina can win a third World Cup that narrowly eluded them after an extra-time defeat to Germany in the final eight years ago.
“We are eager, we are going to fight, we are not afraid of anyone because we are ready to play against everyone,” Messi told Directv Sports last month.
“I think the first game is very important because starting with a win gives you peace of mind.”
Argentina was held out to a 1-1 draw by debutants Iceland when Messi missed a penalty in their opening game in Russia, setting the tone for a disastrous tournament.
They will be highly favored in Group C over Mexico and Poland. Their first game is against Saudi Arabia — led by two-time Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach Herve Renard — who are determined not to just make up the numbers.
Reaching the knockout stage was no problem for Mexico, who stunned Germany’s holders in Russia in the first round only to face Brazil and suffer their seventh consecutive last-16 exit.
Veteran midfielder Andres Guardado will join Messi by appearing at a fifth World Cup. His final debut came in a last-16 loss to Argentina in the 2006 edition and he shares the record for most caps in Mexico with 177 alongside the legendary Claudio Suarez.
Mexico was knocked out again in the same stage four years later by the same opponents, but El Tri hopes to overcome an all-too-familiar obstacle with the insight of Gerardo Martino, the former Argentina-Barcelona national team coach.
For a player who has tumbled goalscoring records, Robert Lewandowski has yet to make his mark at a World Cup and he undoubtedly remains the key to Poland’s fate.
The 34-year-old has scored nine times in as many outings as Poland smashed their ticket to Qatar, extending his lead to 25 goals in 19 games in the last two World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Poland meekly bowed to the group stage in 2018 and it remains a pain point for Lewandowski. “That was one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” he told FIFA’s website. “I haven’t had any chances, I haven’t scored a single goal and that still hurts.”
The Barcelona attacker, Poland’s captain and all-time top goalscorer, will have to lead from the front if his country is to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.
Lewandowski, who was controversially beaten by Messi for the Ballon d’Or last year, is eagerly awaiting the chance to face the Argentine and perhaps end his World Cup dreams once and for all.
“With an absolute legend like Leo Messi as their figurehead, there is no doubt that this will be our toughest match. It will be great to play such a great side with such talented players,” he said.