The opening game in Group C of the World Cup will see Argentina face off against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium.
Led by superstar Lionel Messi, the Argentines have been widely tipped to challenge strongly for a third World Cup win. Coach Lionel Scaloni’s charges know a convincing victory against the Gulf side is expected — even demanded — by their legions of fans.
Their hopes for glory were forged during an incredible 36-game unbeaten run dating back to 2019 and have taken on increased poignancy following recent indications from Messi that this will be his last World Cup.
The diminutive 35-year-old has been in sparkling form for club and country over the past year, lighting up his second season at Paris Saint-Germain with 12 goals and 14 assists in 19 games to date.
Considered by many to be the greatest footballer of his generation, he will be assisted in Qatar by an array of supporting talent including attackers Ángel Di Maria and Lautaro Martínez, and midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes.
Argentina possess a miserly defence, too, dampening the prospects of the Green Falcons pulling off an upset and adding to the predictions of some that the side from South America may be back at Lusail Stadium for the World Cup final on December 18.
But Saudi Arabia will be determined to try and frustrate the Albiceleste, who were last crowned world champions in 1986.
If they are to enjoy any success, the Saudis will need to be flawlessly organised in their own half and ready to hit the Argentines on the break when opportunities to counterattack present themselves.
Manager Herve Renard will be fully aware of the scale of the challenge ahead, with difficult fixtures against fellow Group C challengers Poland and Mexico looming next. However, he and his players will take heart from an excellent qualification campaign that saw them book a place at this year’s tournament with two games in hand, securing a sixth World Cup appearance since their inaugural showing in the 1994 edition.
Talisman Salem Al-Dawsari will offer Saudi’s greatest threat with his creative wing play and comes into the competition on the back of the most prolific season of his career to date, having scored heavily for Riyadh-based club side Al-Hilal.
The 31-year-old is unlikely to be short of support from the stands, with tens of thousands of Saudi Arabia fans expected to attend the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East. Among them will be Abdullah Alsulmi, who has trekked on foot more than 1,500km (930 miles) from the Red Sea port city of Jeddah to Qatar, to cheer his side on.
But regardless of results, the team’s appearance at the tournament alone marks something of a win for its supporters. For more than three years, Riyadh had led a regional economic blockade of Qatar that threatened to undermine Saudi Arabia’s participation in the competition, and some feared, the tournament itself.