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World Cup team previews: Mexico, Argentina, Poland, Saudi Arabia

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Laurens likes Argentina & Messi's chances of World Cup glory (0:38)

Gab & Juls preview Group C at the 2022 World Cup, with Argentina expected to cruise into the knockout rounds. (0:38)

ESPN is previewing each of the World Cup's 32 teams ahead of the tournament. Here's what you need to know about the four sides set to do battle in Group C.

Jump to: Mexico | Argentina | Poland | Saudi Arabia
Also read: Group A | B | D | E | F | G | H

Mexico

Manager: Gerardo Martino
Nickname: El Tri (The Tricolor)
FIFA Rank: 13

How they qualified

On paper, it looked like a harmless run through CONCACAF's final round of World Cup qualifying. El Tri finished second in the eight-team Hexagonal and were level on points with leaders Canada, who went ahead of them only through goal differential. That said, the path was a nervy one for Mexico through countless low-scoring wins and draws. Traditionally seen as the giants in the region, a W0-D2-L2 record against Canada and the United States did little to win over skeptics who began to question the tactics of manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino. Chants of "Fuera Tata" (Tata out) in the stands became the norm in 2022 and have yet to let up.

Style of play

Once employing a free-flowing attack, Martino seems to have slowed things down in recent months through a more patient style of buildup play. More comfortable at the opposition's end of the pitch, Mexico tend to hold on to possession through a 4-3-3 formation that focuses on overlapping runs from high-pressing full-backs.

Biggest strength

Although it wouldn't be a surprise to see Martino change his tactics against an opponent like Argentina, or perhaps even Poland, there is a defined style of play and a clear-cut formation whenever Mexico step onto the field. Through a process that has existed since early 2019 under their current manager, there will not only be a strong understanding with the tactical and positional expectations that Martino wants, but also a familiarity within the squad that has seen many regular call-ups.

Biggest weakness

Despite the expectations being clear, the execution and implementation of Mexico's game plan has been worrying in 2022. El Tri's buildup play can quickly become tedious and, once in the final third, problems with finishing have emerged -- especially with some lengthy injury absences for lead target man Raul Jimenez and forward Jesus Corona, the latter of whom is officially out of the tournament. Martino has the benefit of depth in numerous positions that can allow him to alter his in-game tactics, but he's also struggled with choosing the correct substitutes.

Star player: Hirving 'Chucky' Lozano

Much of the attacking responsibilities should land on the shoulders of Napoli's crafty winger. Agile, clever with his ball movement and also able to force opposition to make costly fouls, the 27-year-old is set to become the focal point of El Tri's efforts going forward. With doubts over the health of some other members of Mexico's frontline, Lozano will be an invaluable member of the XI and should be up to the task. Let's not forget that in the 2018 World Cup, the winger provided one of the most iconic moments in the history of Mexican football after scoring the winning goal in a stunning 1-0 victory over global powerhouses Germany.

Projected starting XI

(4-3-3): Ochoa; Gallardo, Moreno, Montes, Sanchez; Alvarez, Guardado, Gutierrez; Lozano, Antuna, Jimenez.

What the stats say

- Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)

- Mexico have the most appearances (17) and games (57) in World Cup history by a team that have never won the title.

FiveThirtyEight SPI: 57% chance to make the round of 16, 26% to make quarterfinals.

Betting odds: +10000 (via Caesars Sportsbook)

Prediction

While the worries surrounding Mexico are legitimate, the national team have a long history of putting aside pre-World Cup jitters and going beyond the group stage. Argentina are likely to top the group, but El Tri should have the upper hand over Saudi Arabia and Poland to make the round of 16. However, it's difficult to see them going much further, which would mean them exiting before the fifth game for an eighth consecutive World Cup in a row. -- Cesar Hernandez.


Argentina

Manager: Lionel Scaloni
Nickname: La Albiceleste (White and Sky Blue)
FIFA Rank: 3

How they qualified

Argentina had to sweat their way to South Africa 2010 and Russia 2018, but the road to Qatar was extremely smooth. True, the most difficult game -- away to Brazil -- was interrupted after five minutes and never replayed, but the qualification campaign was part of an unbeaten run that currently stands at 35 games. And that stretch includes a win away to Brazil that brought them the 2021 Copa America, their first senior title in 28 years. Rookie coach Lionel Scaloni was originally a caretaker option, but everything has gone so well that the team are now affectionately referred to as the "Scaloneta."

Style of play

The parts began to fit together during the course of the 2019 Copa America, since when Argentina have refined a style based on patient midfield possession, with the triangle of Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso moving the ball until they can bring Lionel Messi into the game close to the opposing goal.

Biggest strength

The fans have reacted with euphoria to the realisation that over the last few years Argentina has been Messi's No. 1 priority, and confidence is high because the team works. Good sides are full of little partnerships, and Argentina's midfield trio click with each other, and with Messi, while Messi clicks with centre-forward Lautaro Martinez, and Angel Di Maria flits around clicking with everyone. The team's passing game tends to wear down the opponents and open up space in the second half. The template is the recent 3-0 win over European champions Italy in the "Finalissima" -- an even match for a while, which ended up in a rout.

Biggest weakness

Argentina's recent defensive record is not just good, it is superb. They tightened up considerably from the middle of last year, when at the same time Emiliano Martinez and Cristian Romero were introduced to the team -- respectively the best goalkeeper and centre-back they have had for some time. Argentina have conceded just two goals in the last 14 games, but at times they have been at full strength, needing heroics from Martinez. A question mark over their World Cup challenge is whether the defensive unit can stand up against the best on the planet.

Star player: Lionel Messi

Who else? Messi has scored an extraordinary nine goals in less than two-and-a-half games. The opposition in Qatar will be far tougher, but that stat highlights the old saying that "the stars shine bright when the collective balance of the team is right." Where in the past Plans A, B and C were to give the ball to Messi and hope, now he is much better integrated into the structure of the team, tactically and emotionally. Where once his quiet, self-contained nature could be inhibiting, he is now a vocal and encouraging leader, and this final chance to win the World Cup could be his best yet.

Projected starting XI

(4-3-3): Martinez; Molina, Romero, Otamendi, Tagliafico; De Paul, Paredes, Lo Celso; Messi, Lautaro Martinez, Di Maria.

What the stats say

- Best World Cup finish: Two-time champion (1978, 1986.)

- Argentina enter November on a 35-game unbeaten streak (which is two games shy of the all-time men's record.)

FiveThirtyEight SPI: 48% chance to make the quarterfinals, 8% to win title.

Betting odds: +650 (via Caesars Sportsbook)

Prediction

There is something gloriously retro about Argentina's passing game, and if they hit form they will certainly be one of the most attractive sides in Qatar. They have every right to dream of walking off with trophy. In the collective sense of the word this is their best team in years, but is their defence good enough to go all the way? The semifinals might be their limit. -- Tim Vickery.


Poland

Manager: Czeslaw Michniewicz
Nickname: The White and Red
FIFA Rank: 26

How they qualified

Poland's results in qualifying Group I were unimpressive. Their six wins came from beating each of Andorra, Albania, and San Marino twice, as they finished five points behind group winners England but advanced to the four-team playoff bracket. In the playoff semifinals, Poland got a bye as Russia were disqualified by FIFA after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Poland then saved their best performance for the playoff final against Sweden, winning 2-0 with Robert Lewandowski scoring from the penalty spot and Piotr Zielinski sealing their place in Qatar with a goal in the 72nd minute.

Style of play

Head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz, who took over from Paulo Sousa in January, stands for reactive football. Poland usually have considerably less ball possession and a lower shot output than their opponents. So they try to hit a team on the break and assist 34-year-old striker Lewandowski in situations close to the penalty area.

Biggest strength

While Poland emphasise defensive stability, a big asset are the attacking players who have experience abroad. Zielinski, Sebastian Szymanski and Nicola Zalewski serve as a respectable supporting cast for Lewandowski, who is the greatest strength Poland possess. The Barcelona striker is the truest definition of a target man when he wears the Poland jersey and can be a difference maker in any game. He does not have quite the goal-scoring rate compared to his years at Borussia Dortmund (103 goals in 187 games) and Bayern Munich (344 in 375) but has still scored 76 times in 134 matches for Poland.

Biggest weakness

Poland's biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. The focus on Lewandowski has hurt the team's performance in the past, as too much weight is put on the shoulders of one player, regardless of the fact that he is a generational talent. Moreover, Lewandowski has rarely been able to translate his club performances to the national team. Playing for Dortmund, Bayern and now Barcelona all these years has encouraged him to concentrate on a clearly defined role as No. 9 up front. In the national team, much more is demanded from him than only filling that role.

Star player

Unsurprisingly, Lewandowski is the star of this team and leaves everyone else in his shadow. Following his €45 million move from Bayern to Barcelona this summer, he has continued to score game after game, recording 17 goals in his first 16 outings for the Blaugrana. Lewandowski is undoubtedly among the greatest Polish players in history and, given his age, this World Cup will likely be his last, which might give him an extra boost to impress on this stage. He is very aware of his reputation outside of his home country and will be highly motivated.

Projected starting XI

(3-4-2-1) Szczesny; Bednarek, Glik, Kiwior; Frankowski, Krychowiak, Linetty, Zalewski; Zielinski, Szymanski; Lewandowski

What the stats say

- Best World Cup finish: 3rd Place (1974, 1982.)

- Lewandowski has 35 goal contributions in the last three qualifying cycles (tied-most in Europe.)

FiveThirtyEight SPI: 35% chance to make the round of 16, 12% to make quarterfinals.

Betting odds: +10000 (via Caesars Sportsbook.)

Prediction

The first matchday in Group C will be crucial for Poland as they face Mexico in what could turn out to be the battle for second place behind Argentina. However, it is probable that Poland will not make it out of the group and leave Qatar early. -- Constantin Eckner.


Saudi Arabia

Manager: Herve Renard
Nickname: Green Falcons
FIFA Rank: 51

How they qualified

Saudi Arabia return to the World Cup for the second time running, a feat they hadn't achieved since the 2002 and 2006 editions, and as the only nation with land border to hosts Qatar, they can expect plenty of support. Head coach Herve Renard was appointed at the start of the qualifiers but an initial 2-2 draw against minnows Yemen cast some doubts on his ability to lead them to the World Cup. Since then, however, he has steadied the ship. Saudi Arabia won 13 of their next 17 games to finish the second round unbeaten and top a difficult group in the third round that included the likes of Japan and Australia. Along the way, they lost only one match, a 2-0 defeat away in Japan that proved marginal as they finished one point ahead of the Samurai Blue.

Style of play

Under Renard's predecessor, Juan Pizzi, Saudi Arabia played an expansive brand of football that left them open against bigger teams, culminating in an infamous 5-0 demolition by Russia in 2018. Renard has restored some balance to the side, introducing more defensive responsibility while allowing attacking players to flourish. Expect a side set up in a 4-5-1 formation with a good understanding of when to push forward and when to retreat.

Biggest strength

No single moment epitomises Saudi football as much as Saeed Al-Owairan's iconic goal against Belgium at USA 1994. Even 28 years later, that mix of technical ability, flair and self-confidence is what characterises Saudi players, and they will be keen to show their skills in front of the world at Qatar 2022. Of the 11 goals Saudi Arabia scored in their World Cup history, four have come from the penalty spot, a result of their trickery and quick feet to either beat opponents or win fouls inside the box.

Biggest weakness

Alongside the hosts Qatar, Saudi Arabia will be the only nation to field an entirely home-based squad. That lack of exposure to playing in the top leagues in Europe could count against them when they face sides with the experience of Argentina, Mexico and Poland. For their technical quality, the Green Falcons can at times lack tactical discipline, leaving them prone to big defeats. In 16 World Cup matches, they have conceded four goals or more on four occasions, and have only ever kept one clean sheet: against Belgium in 1994.

Star player: Salem Al-Dawsari

In a team of domestic talent, winger Salem Al-Dawsari stands out. The 30-year-old had a brief spell abroad at Spanish LaLiga side Villarreal but has otherwise played out his entire career at Riyadh-based Al Hilal, leading them to two AFC Champions League titles in 2019 and 2021 and racking up 62 caps in which he scored 16 goals from his position on the left flank. Pacey and inventive on the ball, Al-Dawsari scored Saudi Arabia's last World Cup goal in a 2-1 win against Egypt four years ago and will look to add to his tally in Qatar.

Projected starting XI

(4-5-1): Al Owais; Abdulhamid, Al-Amri, Al-Bulaihi, Al-Shahrani; Al-Faraj, Al-Hassan, Al-Najei, Al-Dawsari, Bahebri; Al-Shehri.

What the stats say

- Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (1994.)

- Saudi Arabia have suffered just three losses in 18 qualifying matches.

FiveThirtyEight SPI: 29% chance to make the round of 16, 9% to make quarterfinals.

Betting odds: +50000 (via Caesars Sportsbook)

Prediction

Facing World Cup favourites Argentina, a Poland side led by the free-scoring Lewandowski, and an experienced Mexico team, Saudi Arabia have their work cut out. Avoiding heavy defeats will be the goal, and any points collected along the way will be a bonus for the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament. -- Wael Jabir.


WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW

- All World Cup 2022 squads
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