Upset alert! In one of the great shockers in World Cup history, Saudi Arabia, the 51st-ranked team in FIFA’s rankings, topped Argentina, South American champions and the #3 team in that same FIFA list. It was a day filled with balls in the back of the net, some called back for offsides, some that stood, but above all it was a day to remember. Meanwhile, Mexico and Poland played to a classic 0-0 thriller (not sarcasm) where Guillermo Ochoa once again showed up and became the very embodiment of peak Gianluigi Buffon, as he does every four years when his country needs him most. Let’s take a look at the odds and make some picks in what has become a pivotal matchday 2 in Group C.
Argentina Vs. Mexico Odds
Despite their early struggles, Argentina are set as a deserving favorite, with -175 odds to win. The draw is set at +300, while Mexico are a tempting +550. The goalscoring total is set at the standard 2.5, with the under being a narrow favorite at -125.
Argentina Vs. Mexico Prediction & Pick
Messi’s last shot at football’s greatest glory, and truly securing his place as the GOAT beyond any reproach, has gotten off to an inauspicious start with the loss to veritable minnows Saudi Arabia. Of course, they still have a very clear path to qualification, but I would not shy away from calling this one a must-win; all three points would go a long way towards making sure La Albiceleste participate in the knockout stages. There were disappointments up and down the pitch for Argentina, and beyond the (questionably-given) penalty strike in the tenth minute, there were not a lot of positives; the main theme was a general sense of disjointedness amidst what should have been one of the best-prepared teams for this tournament.
In Mexico’s less-shocking opener, the hero was once again the legendary Ochoa; he saved a penalty, the first keeper to do so against Robert Lewandowski in the Polish striker’s vaunted international career. Largely due to that penalty stop, Ochoa turned 1.28 xGOT into a shutout, and secured an enormous point for his nation. The Monterrey-heavy Mexico back line had a solid day as well, limiting Poland’s attacking options by getting the ball off of their feet in short order on most attacks. It’ll be a taller task against a deeper Argentine attack, but if Ochoa and co. are able to conjure some more magic, their side would be even closer to achieving that coveted outcome of qualification.
Unfortunately, that’s not my pick. Argentina will be highly motivated after a disappointing opening result, and the lineup could potentially be shaken up a bit- for instance, Man United phenom Lisandro Martinez didn’t come on until after the two Saudi strikes, and the team settled down notably with him on the pitch. I’m taking Argentina in this one, although it could well be a tight contest; the -175 value isn’t amazing, so I’d consider it as parlay fuel if anything. I’m also going to go with the under, I’m not sure if there’s a clear path for Mexico to replicate Saudi Arabia’s quick-strike success, and of course it’s not a brilliant strategy to bet for tons of goals against Ochoa.
Argentine Attack vs. Mexican Defense
This group, including both Ochoa as well as Mexico’s back four, is going to be absolutely pivotal in determining the outcome of this match, and really that of this suddenly-fascinating group. As I alluded to earlier, there’s another interesting wrinkle to this group beyond their legendary brick wall of a keeper; three of their four defenders, all but right back Jorge Sánchez of Ajax, play together for Monterrey during the club season. César Montes and Héctor Moreno are the central defensive pairing, while Jesus Gallardo plays the left fullback position. Bringing together players with existing chemistry and comfortability with one another is a brilliant decision by manager Gerardo Martino; it’s a great field-leveler for a group that probably does not have the high-end talent of some of those they’ll play against. One of the pitfalls of highly talented national teams is individualized play, as they haven’t had consistent opportunities to develop together- Mexico’s defense will not suffer from this.
Argentina’s attack is quite the opposite; despite the fact that they’ve had ample opportunities to work together during qualifiers and of course their Copa América triumph, they looked like a group of highly talented players that just met each other for the first time an hour before stepping on the pitch against Saudi Arabia. There were mistimed passes and runs, leading to the downright comical 10 offsides committed (to Saudi Arabia’s 1), at least 3 of which could easily be described as having cost their team a goal. Messi is of course the focal point, but Inter’s Lautaro Martínez has been excellent most times for club and country, serving as second-striker alongside Messi for the latter. This is also the case for the often-unsung Ángel Di María and Sevilla’s Alejandro Gómez, Argentina’s veteran wing duo, who were essentially invisible in the loss. This is an incredibly talented group, but they need to stay within themselves and play a smarter game; I’d venture to say that a return from injury for the always-creative Paulo Dybala could be the difference between success and failure when it comes to Argentina’s lofty goals within this tournament.
The Midfield Battle
For two sides exhibiting genuine issues to work out at both ends of the pitch, possessing the ball and simultaneously minimizing exposure to their weaknesses while putting pressure on their opponents could be the key to determining a result in this one. Argentina essentially ran with a two-man midfield against Saudi Arabia, with Juve loanee Leandro Paredes joining prized Atletico Madrid starter Rodrigo De Paul in the middle of a 4-4-2 setup. Paredes certainly had the better outing, while it can only be imagined that De Paul will improve from his uninspiring start to the tournament. The promising Benfica youngster Enzo Fernández played a half hour in relief of Paredes and helped the team settle in; perhaps he’ll have a significant presence going forward, particularly if Argentina’s manager Lionel Scaloni eventually opts for a more traditional 4-3-3 shape.
On Mexico’s end, it was that classic three man midfield. Ajax’s Edson Álvarez was a real leader in the middle of the three, as he both played well defensively, and created some of the limited chances Mexico had in the match. He was flanked by Luis Chávez of Mexican league side Pachucha on the left, and former Atletico Madrid and Porto mainstay Héctor Herrera on the right. Chávez was more up to the moment, while Herrera subbed out after 71 minutes, when he was replaced by Cruz Azul’s Carlos Rodríguez. This group put together a scrappy, passable performance against a Polish midfield that can best be described as “okay”. They’ll need more to secure even another draw against a much more battle-tested Argentina group, one that has legitimate championship pedigree after their triumphs just over a year ago.