DOHA – Every Argentina player will fight till their very last drop of sweat falls, that was the declaration of their coach Lionel Scaloni as they prepare for battle against Mexico on Saturday.
The Argentinians are hoping to restore their status as one of the tournament favourites against the goal-shy Mexicans in their Group C clash, in which both heavyweights of Latin American football need to improve on disappointing starts to the World Cup.
Scaloni’s men suffered one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, with a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, as captain and all-time top scorer Lionel Messi embarked on his fifth and final attempt to win the only prize that has eluded him.
Mexico’s low-scoring and injury-hit squad bore out pre-tournament pessimism in their first game, drawing 0-0 against Poland and avoiding defeat only thanks to a stunning save from veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
So an already spicy-looking encounter has become even hotter for both teams if they are to avoid the ignominy of an early exit.
“Mexico is an excellent team, we already said beforehand when we found out about the group stage. They are an offensive team with a great coach,” said Scaloni on Friday.
“We might have gotten a blow in the opening match but we know we need to stick to our guns, to approach the game as we had prepared.
“We have the responsibility of an entire country behind us and I know that each player will leave every last drop of sweat (on the pitch). They will give everything until the last minute to turn this situation around.”
When asked about the mental state of Messi and the pressure that his star player is facing, Scaloni brushed aside those concerns.
He said: “Leo trained well. He is feeling well. More than ever, we need everyone. We have no questions at all about his physical level and emotionally he is feeling well too. No questions there.”
Messi had insisted after the loss to the Saudis that the Mexico clash is a must-win game, adding: “It’s up to us to correct mistakes and get back to the basics of who we are.”
Those basics took Argentina on an extraordinary, three-year unbeaten run of 36 games until defeat by the Green Falcons, which they hope was an aberration rather than a sign of decline at just the wrong moment.
In preparing for Mexico, the Argentinians will be particularly focused on how to beat high defensive lines after the frustration of seeing three goals ruled out for offside against Saudi Arabia.
The ease with which the Saudis unsettled their defence in a manic start to the second half, when they scored twice, is another source of concern for Argentina.
Mexico’s challenge is straightforward – figuring out how to score.
In winger Hirving Lozano, they have someone guaranteed to supply crosses but no one is finishing the chances.
“We need more accuracy,” said coach Gerardo Martino, himself an Argentinian. “We need to be accurate in front of goal.”
Argentina are pursuing a third World Cup title with particular passion, given that Messi has said this is his last tournament, meaning it is his final opportunity to match the late Diego Maradona’s immortality at home.
Mexico are nothing if not consistent at recent World Cups – they have been eliminated in the last 16 at every edition since 1994.
Both sides are traditionally well-supported, with hordes of loud and colourfully clad Argentinians and Mexicans prominent around the Qatari capital Doha since the tournament began.
The other Group C clash on Saturday is between Poland and Saudi Arabia, who will be high on confidence following their morale-boosting win over Argentina. REUTERS