DOHA: Some pressure off, but a lot more to come. Heaps of it for Argentina. And naturally with the attention they receive, the moderator for the news conference ahead of their round-of-16 clash with Australia was having a hard time keeping up with the arms that had been raised to ask for the microphone. And it began with a request from the moderator to ask all the reporters, clamoring for a chance to throw a question, to maintain some silence.
Rodrigo De Paul, Argentina’s midfield constant in their three group games, was here on Friday, less than 48 hours after they beat Poland in their final group game to seal top spot. The shifting of the World Cup from its usual summer slot has led to a congested schedule.
De Paul, however, said there were “no excuses”.
“We need to go out there and work on the pitch,” he said. His coach Lionel Scaloni, arriving for the press conference late due to an issue with his van, said Argentina had used Thursday for rest and recovery.
“It does have an impact when we play another game in 48 hours,” he said. “Today we have a clearer picture on what the condition of the players is and then we will decide on who starts tomorrow.”
Argentina go into the game as overwhelming favourites against Australia but they have been stung by an Asian side at this World Cup. Saudi Arabia’s stunning victory over Scaloni’s men had shook the earth off its axis, but the order was restored after Argentina won their games against Mexico — thanks to a moment of brilliance from the totemic Lionel Messi — and Poland to book a spot in the knockouts.
Scaloni and De Paul were having none of their favourites tag.
“It’s 11 versus 11 and we know Australia have good players … we will try to play at a high level as they are a team with players who know what they want,” said the coach. De Paul felt Argentina would have more of the ball but was wary of Australia’s “fast players”. “It will be difficult,” he added.
Argentina are looking to end a 36-year wait for the World Cup trophy in Qatar, their last deliverance coming through the iconic Diego Maradona in 1986. Maradona had a globe-encompassing reach, taking fandom for Argentina far and wide. Messi is the man tasked with ending Argentina’s long wait in potentially his last World Cup and spreading joy not only in his homeland but across the world.
FIFA posted a video of wild celebrations in Bangladesh after Argentina’s victory over Poland. Scaloni saw it. “People around the world, like in Bangladesh, have been crazy because we had Maradona and now we have Messi,” he said. “And we want to make them happy by keeping on playing with our style.”
That also means going far at the World Cup. It’s a very different scenario for Australia. “We’re looking to do our nation proud,” said their coach Graham Arnold on Friday. Defender Harry Souttar, who will have a task on his hands to stop Messi on Saturday, said his side “were looking to surprise a few more”.
Australia were thrashed by France in their opening game but they bounced back from it to record victories over Tunisia and Denmark to punch their ticket to the last 16. They have never met Argentina at the World Cup before but in 1993, they faced the Albiceleste in the intercontinental playoff for a spot at the 1994 World Cup.
Argentina scraped through 2-1 on aggregate over two legs, with games being played in Sydney and Buenos Aires. That allowed Maradona to play at his final World Cup in the United States a year later but he could feature in just two games before being forced out because of a failed drugs test.
Arnold remembered the two playoff matches as “the highlights of his life” but having been unable to stop Maradona as a player, he’s now plotting to send Messi — also in the twilight of his career — out of the World Cup.
Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2022