Group C provides another thrilling race for the knockout stages as Poland and Mexico arrive in Qatar hell-bent on clinching second place. With their vast array of World Class players and experience at this level, Argentina assumes their spot as pace-setters before a ball is kicked.
Whereas Saudi Arabia, who fended off both Japan and Australia in World Cup qualifying, poses a test that is familiar with the climate and capable of causing an upset. It’s poised to be a cracker, and one that may see the last of the World’s best on this stage.
La Albiceleste, the reigning Copa America champions, made light work of qualifying as they often do in their homeland. Finishing second to an undefeated Brazil was no disgrace, especially considering the undefeated status also followed the Argentines to completion.
Now for something that is not surprising in the slightest – Argentina scored a truckload of goals in their 17 qualifying games. Both Lautaro Martínez and Lionel Messi appeared in the top ten of CONMEBOL’s top goal scorers with seven strikes apiece. Not quite reaching the lethality of Bolivia’s Marcelo Moreno (13), but not far off.
A 27.2xG figure came from Argentina’s rampant forward line and beyond in CONMEBOL qualification. It’s one they met with 27 goals scored whilst conceding just eight at the other end. Again, Brazil beat Lionel Scaloni’s men in both metrics, perhaps showcasing where the strength lies on the continent.
Argentina’s two World Cup victories in 1978 and 1986 have encouraged generations to fall in love with its national team. Diego Maradona and company have vacated, with Lionel Messi likely carrying the torch for one last time. It would be poetic if the diminutive superstar pulled the strings towards a third World Cup lift. Rest assured, there’s a nation at home quietly confident behind a squad stacked with quality.
Unlike the Argentina we’re used to in the modern era, this is a La Albiceleste squad with steel, vigour, and strength in numbers in defensive areas. No longer is this a side that unwantedly boasts a top-heavy feel.
Take your pick from Cristian Romero, Lisandro Martínez, Germán Pezzella, and Nicolás Otamendi in central defence – the type of headache an international manager yearns for months before a major tournament. In a group with Robert Lewandowski and the potential of Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema in the Round of 16, defensive solidity is a must.
Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia. It’s a tough ask for a Mexican side that could not beat CONCACAF’s most formidable two nations in qualifying in Canada and the USA.
In fairness, Mexico beat the Canadians during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which took place just a month before World Cup qualification. The semi-final victory set up a showpiece final with the USA, one Mexico later lost in extra time.
Nevertheless, it was a valiant effort. In qualifying, though, Mexico lost to both, alongside two draws on home soil. The Mexican’s primary issue was that they didn’t have a reliable source of goals. Where Canada had Cyle Larin (13), and Panama had Cecilio Waterman (7), the Tricolor’s leading goal return was Raul Jiminez’s three strikes. Instead, the 17 goals were shared amongst 13 different players – more goalscorers than any other nation.
However, a feat Mexico will be desperate to further in Qatar will be the abundance of clean sheets. Eight in 14 matches, to be precise. The eight strikes conceded ended qualifying as the second-stingiest total for a CONCACAF side, level with the USA and one more than Canada’s seven.
Their strike rate for progressing from the group stage should stand Mexico in good stead in Group C. The Mexicans have engineered a path out of the first-round group phase in their eight consecutive World Cup appearances. That’s impressive, though they face an uphill battle this time out alongside Poland and Argentina, who will both fancy their chances of vacating Group C.
If Poland are to cause waves in the 2022 World Cup, it’ll be borne from elite marksman Robert Lewandowski. Formerly of Munich fame and now settled in Spain, the Polish forward was directly involved in 13 goals in World Cup qualification.
No other Pole can come close to that kind of contribution from 11 matches. Karol Świderski (6) and Adam Buksa (5) are next-best, less than half of what Lewandowski had to offer. Nevertheless, a second-place finish behind England is what their contributions got them. That set up a semi-final and final play-off match pencilled into the diary.
The semi-final with Russia was understandably chalked off, awarding Poland a route to the final without kicking a ball. There they faced a similarly ranked Swedish side. Just nine months earlier, the Swedes put the nail in the coffin of the Polish in the final group match of the European Championships. The group stage exit at the Euros followed the 2018 elimination at the same stage in the Russian World Cup.
Substitute Viktor Claesson dampened Lewandowski’s brace in the 90th minute in the Euros to send Poland home. But, this time, it was Poland that proved most lethal. Zielinksi and Lewandowski with the goals, two of Poland’s most influential, ensuring it’d be a warm winter period for all involved.
Poland deserves to be a seat at the table in November. After all, they netted more goals (20) than all but three European nations in World Cup qualifying. Robert Lewandowski and his gang of merry men scored more than France (18), Italy (16), Spain (19), and Portugal (17) to secure bums on plane seats to Qatar.
Czesław Michniewicz’s Polish outfit have done the dirty work. Finally, they’re in the Qatari World Cup. Now, they’ve got to conjure enough to progress from Group C. Recent history isn’t great – failing to win in 8/9 of their previous World Cup matches. Their last victory, against Japan, came in their final match in Russia in 2018. If Poland can cast aside Mexico on the 22nd of November, it’ll be the first time they’ve won consecutive games at the World Cup since 1982.
Saleh Al Shehri, the Al-Hilal hitman, scored four goals in Round 3 of AFC qualification. In clinical fashion, the Saudi forward registered four shots on target, scoring from each attempt. No other player at the business end of AFC qualifying (Round 3) scored as many as Al Shehri, whilst he also racked up the highest xG total (3.03) from six games played.
The Saudis are as big as 44/1 to win the group. For Saudi Arabia to qualify? You can back Hervé Renard’s middle-eastern ensemble to progress from Group C at 8/1.
The minnows of Group C haven’t exactly impressed on the World Cup stage. Saudi Arabia are yet to win an opening match of the tournament after five attempts. Agonisingly for the Saudis, their national team have failed to score in nine of their 16 games at the World Cup – a ratio more significant than any other nation in Asia (5+ games played).
Yet, in qualifying, Japan and Australia were held at arm’s length as Saudi Arabia beat both and topped Round 3, Group B, in Asia. That’s no small feat, given the impressiveness of a Japanese side intent on collectively overwhelming all Asian opposition with their high-intensity press.
A 0.6 goals conceded per90 figure told the tale of a robust qualifying stretch, with just 7.9xGA at the wrong end. Although you’d imagine the Saudi goal will come under all sorts of scrutiny in this group, that’s one leading positive head coach Renard will look to build on.
All things considered, the bet that stands out here is Argentina to win the group along with Saudi Arabia to finish rock-bottom. It looks delicious at even money too.
Argentina are among the favourites to win this winter’s World Cup and I don’t think they’ll encounter too many issues prior to the knockout stages. As stated, they scored goals for fun during qualifying and they’ve discovered the perfect balance with a solid defence.
Martinez and Messi are frightening and will aid in winning matches. Mexico and Poland have top individual players, but as teams, I don’t envision them having enough to compete for the top spot.
As for the Saudi’s, they’ll be underdogs going into each game and they’ll do well to get a single point on the board. They’re 2/1 to lose every game in the group stages and that looks an attractive proposition.
Group C – Argentina group winners & Saudi Arabia to finish bottom
How and where to watch each match:
ARG vs SAU – 22nd November – 10:00 (ITV)
MEX vs POL – 22nd November – 16:00 (BBC One)
POL vs SAU – 26th November – 13:00 (ITV)
ARG vs MEX – 26th November – 19:00 (ITV)
POL vs ARG – 30th November – 19:00 (BBC TBC)
SAU vs MEX – 30th November – 19:00 (BBC TBC)