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World Cup Group C Preview: Can Lionel Messi Lead Argentina to Title?

World Cup Group C Preview: Can Lionel Messi Lead Argentina to Title? article feature image
Credit:

Elsa/Getty. Pictured: Lionel Messi.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is set to get underway, and our soccer experts are here to provide you with a full preview. 

Read on for analysis of Group C in the tournament, featuring Argentina, Mexico, Poland and Saudi Arabia.

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World Cup Group C Preview

Argentina

Argentina head into Qatar with the third-shortest odds to win the World Cup, behind Brazil and France. La Albiceleste coasted through CONMEBOL to qualify for their 18th World Cup, being one of two teams not to lose a single game in qualification play, with Brazil being the other. 

They are ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings and have been unbelievable over the previous year and a half. Argentina are in the midst of a 35-game unbeaten run, the longest active undefeated streak, nearing Italy’s longest international unbeaten run of 37. The streak dates back to 2019 and includes a Copa America title run where they beat Brazil 1-1 in penalties, ending a 28-year trophy drought in major competitions.

In an offense led by seven-time Ballon D’or winner Lionel Messi, Argentina will never have a difficult time creating chances in the attack. And while this Argentina side might not be the most talented that they have ever had, they are certainly the most unified and have proven they’re willing to defend. They finished World Cup Qualifying with a +19 goal differential and at one point held a clean sheet in six consecutive matches. For context, during WCQ ahead of the 2018 World Cup, their goal differential was only +3. 

Chances To… Action Projections bet365 Odds
Win Group Stage 58.39% -250
Advance To Knockout Round 83.89% -1200
Win World Cup 5.00% +550
Odds as of publish. Action projections by Nick Giffen of the Action Predictive Analytics team.

Argentina’s historic form has them as heavy favorites to finish atop Group C over Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland. They certainly learned their lesson about not playing their best soccer in the group stage in 2018. They finished second in the group behind Croatia that year, resulting in them having to play higher seeded France in the Round of 16, where they lost 4-3. 

Anything can happen in the knockout stage, but this is a team that is in great form and has the capability to go head-to-head with anyone in this tournament. If they remain in top form, this Argentina side will like their chances to claim their third-ever World Cup title. 

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Mexico

Mexico are a team that likes to throw caution to the wind and attack, attack and attack. 

Under new manager Tata Martino, who previously managed the Argentina men’s national team from the 2014 World Cup until July 2016, Mexico like to get out in transition to try to score at will. Among their key attacking pieces are Raul Jimenez of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Hirving Lozano of Napoli and the up-and-coming Santiago Gimenez of Feyenoord. 

With those attackers, Martino encourages a high-pressing style of soccer. That approach was clear at the 2021 Gold Cup, where Mexico created 21 big scoring chances across six fixtures. 

Additionally, with this Mexico team, there’s little aversion to taking shots. In those same six Gold Cup fixtures, Martino’s side took a whopping 114 shots. However, only 39 of those efforts found the target, so Mexico can be assumed as a quantity over quality shot team entering this World Cup. 

Chances To… Action Projections bet365 Odds
Win Group Stage 20.27% +500
Advance To Knockout Round 52.75% -110
Win World Cup 0.67% +15000
Odds as of publish. Action projections by Nick Giffen of the Action Predictive Analytics team.

But with all that attacking prowess comes a trade-off, and it comes in defense. Oddly, this is a team with talented defensive midfielders, but they just can’t seem to put it together with the back-line. In the middle of the park, Ajax’s Edson Alvarez and Hector Herrera, now with the Houston Dynamo but previously with Atletico Madrid, help provide cover for a defense that prefers to keep a high-line. 

Defensively, a big chunk of players that occupy Martino’s back-four come from Liga MX and aren’t used to facing the attacking talent of Europe. Just at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Mexico surrendered an alarming five goals on 6.5 xG against Sweden, Germany and Brazil. 

Although the defense surrendered only three total big scoring chances at the 2021 Gold Cup, one might question how heavily to weight that given the level of opposition. Just in the final against the United States, Mexico allowed three total big scoring chances. 

The good news for Mexico? They possess a goalkeeper who is capable of standing on his head at any given moment and rescuing this Mexico side. Guillermo Ochoa, who plays for CF America in Liga MX, accomplished just that in the 2018 World Cup. Among all 32 nations that participated, Ochoa had the eighth-best post-shot xG differential and conceded only six goals on 7.5 xG. 

Should Mexico have high hopes for this year’s World Cup, Ochoa – who is now 37 years old — will either have to rescue this Mexico defense, or the back-line will have to improve drastically on their underlying metrics. 

All of that said, it’s still worth noting that Mexico have demonstrated an exceptional ability to emerge from the group. El Tri have reached the knockout stage seven years on the bounce, but they have never reached the quarterfinals in those seven tournaments. 

Poland

Poland can be described perfectly as an average soccer country — they’re not great, but they’re also not terrible. 

The headline of the roster is Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowki, who is Poland’s leader in total international goals with 76, scoring almost 0.6 per game in his time with the international team. Elsewhere, there are definitely some familiar names that the average soccer fan will recognize, including goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, defender Jan Bednarek and midfielder Piotr Zielinski. 

As for some of the underlying metrics, those statistics reassert the fact that Poland are simply mediocre. At the European Championships, Poland registered 3.3 xGs in three matches while allowing 3.5 xG on the defensive end. In that tournament, Poland failed to make it out of the group. 

Chances To… Action Projections bet365 Odds
Win Group Stage 17.39% +450
Advance To Knockout Round 47.50% -110
Win World Cup 0.40% +15000
Odds as of publish. Action projections by Nick Giffen of the Action Predictive Analytics team.

Entering the World Cup, this team is having a bit of a crisis on the defensive side of the ball. In arguably one of the strongest UEFA Nations League groups – Poland’s fellow competitors are the Netherlands, Belgium and Wales — they’ve conceded 1.7 xGs per 90 minutes while posting a -0.79 xG differential per 90 minutes. 

In fact, in those six Nations League fixtures, Poland won the match on xG only one time. That match, a home fixture against Wales, represented the only time in the Nations League fixtures they both created more than 1 xG and conceded under 1 xG. 

The other worrying element? Lewandowski isn’t getting any younger and has seen his production drop off a cliff recently. In the five Nations League fixtures in which he participated, Lewandowski accumulated only 0.53 total xG along with 1.17 xGOT.

It’s not entirely bad news with Lewandowski, as he has generated 1 xG per 90 minutes in his first 11 fixtures with Barcelona and created 0.55 xG/90 minutes in three matches against Slovakia, Spain and Sweden at the European Championships. 

But, if Poland hopes to make it out of the group stage for the first time since the 1986 FIFA World Cup, they will have to clean up their defense in a hurry. In their last 15 competitive matches against teams that either will feature in the 2022 World Cup or partook in the European Championships, Poland have kept a clean sheet in exactly two. 

Plus, in just one European Championship fixture against a 2022 World Cup side (Spain), manager Czesław Michniewicz’s side surrendered 2.2 xG. Additionally, the 2018 World Cup saw Poland finish dead-last in a group while surrendering at least 1 xG to all of Senegal, Columbia and Japan. 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia are in the World Cup for the sixth time in the country’s history after finishing atop their World Cup qualifying group over Japan and Australia. Much like Qatar, Saudi Arabia are one of the mystery teams coming into this tournament, because their entire roster is playing in the Saudi Pro League. In fact, their total squad transfer value is only $23,100,000, which is the second lowest in this tournament only to Qatar, per transfermarkt.com. 

They were also one of the teams that were a bit fortunate to actually finish in second in their qualifying group based on their xG results. They cruised through the first round of World Cup Qualifying, but in the second round, they only created 14.4 xG and allowed 11.0 xG in 10 matches. That’s not impressive when six of those matches came against China, Oman and Vietnam, who are ranked outside the Action Network’s top 80 in the world. 

They had two matches each with Japan and Australia, which was a good barometer to see if they could hang with high quality competition. The answer to that question was no, because they lost the xG battle by a combined 5.4 to 4.1.

Chances To… Action Projections bet365 Odds
Win Group Stage 3.95% +2000
Advance To Knockout Round 15.87% +500
Win World Cup 0.03% +75000
Odds as of publish. Action projections by Nick Giffen of the Action Predictive Analytics team.

What was interesting about Saudi Arabia’s performance in the 2018 World Cup is they were able to hold over 50% possession in every single match, but against Uruguay and Russia, they were only able to create a total of 0.5 xG and allowed 3.4 xG. 

The match against Japan on the road was quite telling that Saudi Arabia really aren’t used to not having the ball and aren’t that effective sitting in and playing a low block. The same thing happened when they played Australia on the road as well.  

However, much like Qatar, Saudi Arabia will have an added benefit to all of their players playing in the Saudi Pro League. That league went on pause on October 16th, giving them over a month of rest and training together to gear up for the World Cup, while the rest of the teams in their group will have less than two weeks. 

So, if they weren’t able to do it against Japan and Australia, what makes you think they are going to be able to hang with Argentina, Mexico and Poland? 

The prospects of Saudi Arabia getting out of this group are slim, especially when they open up against Lionel Messi and Argentina. 

Group C Schedule

Date Time Match
Nov. 22 5 a.m. ET Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia
Nov. 22 11 a.m. ET Mexico vs. Poland
Nov. 26 8 a.m. ET Poland vs. Saudi Arabia
Nov. 26 2 p.m. ET Argentina vs. Mexico
Nov. 30 2 p.m. ET Poland vs. Argentina
Nov. 30 2 p.m. ET Saudi Arabia vs. Mexico

 

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