World Cup: Shock Lionel Messi? Australia say why not
Australia’s players speak in glowing, almost reverential terms about Lionel Messi.
“He just does things that, you know, no one else can do,” forward Mathew Leckie, who scored the all-important goal against Denmark on Wednesday to put his country in the Round of 16, said.
Milos Degenek went even further. “Probably,” the Socceroos defender said, “the best footballer ever to grace the game.”
Imagine, then, how they’ll be feeling on Saturday when they share the same field as Messi and his Argentina team in the knockout stage of the World Cup.
These are pinch-yourself times for a team who were expected to be on their way home by this stage. Yet here they are in Doha, looking to cause the latest upset in a World Cup that has been full of them — right from the moment Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina in perhaps the most unlikely win in the tournament’s 92- year history.
That set the tone for the past two weeks, during which Japan have beaten both Germany and Spain, Morocco have defeated Belgium, Tunisia have trumped France and, let’s not forget, Australia have stunned Denmark.
The Australians want to add to that list. “No one expects us to win,” Leckie said. “So let’s shock the world.”
Don’t expect any complacency among the Argentina squad, though.
“At the moment, everything is very difficult,” said Messi, who is bidding to win the World Cup in his fifth, and likely last, attempt. “All the opponents are complicated. We know it as well as anyone.”
There is a growing feeling, though, that Argentina might have come through the worst of the storm. They have now qualified as the winner of their group and are facing the world’s 38th-ranked nation. Netherlands or the United States will be the opponent in the quarter-finals.
None of Argentina’s players will dare get ahead of themselves but it’s undeniable that the draw has opened up for them.
“We went back to being what we were for a long time,” Messi said after Argentina’s 2-0 win over Poland, “and how we were looking to be at the beginning of the World Cup, which for different reasons we could not manage.
“It gives confidence for what is coming.”
Coach Lionel Scaloni looks to have finally found a winning formula. The centre of midfield now appears to be set, with Alexis Mac Allister and 21-year-old Enzo Fernandez having forced their way into the starting team alongside Rodrigo De Paul.
Up front, Julian Alvarez has dislodged Lautaro Martinez and should keep his place.
Given only one player in Australia’s 26-man group plays in Europe’s top five leagues, it appears to be a mismatch at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. For spells of their win over Poland, Argentina played as one of the favourites.
And then there’s the Messi factor, a subplot which is hanging over the World Cup as he looks to win the only major title to elude him in his career.
“I think they’re obviously driven by the motivation that it could be Messi’s last World Cup,” Degenek said, “and he wants to win the World Cup and end it on a high.
“For us, it’s about stopping that. Unfortunately, I’m a big fan of his, but I’d love to win the World Cup probably more than him.”