The World Cup hasn’t been easy for Lionel Messi and Argentina so far, but they are heavy favorites ahead of their Round of 16 tie against Australia.
The Socceroos were a surprise in the group stages, advancing to the round of 16 in Qatar with 1-0 wins over Tunisia and Denmark.
Argentina, meanwhile, bounced back from a surprise loss to Saudi Arabia with 2-0 wins over Mexico and Poland.
A packed schedule meant teams had just two days to prepare for Saturday’s game at Al Rayyan’s Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Despite a penalty saved against Poland, Messi played a crucial role in Argentina’s tournament, scoring twice – including a superb strike against Mexico – and providing an assist.
Beat Australia – something Argentina have done in all but two of the teams’ previous encounters – and the Netherlands await in the quarter-finals.
Don’t rule out a big surprise, though: This World Cup has already brought several upsets, as demonstrated by Saudi Arabia in their aforementioned stunner against Argentina. As a result, manager Lionel Scaloni takes nothing for granted.
“Australia are a good team,” he told reporters on Friday. “It’s football, you have to put theoretical favoritism aside and play.
Can Australia’s sterling defense continue? The challenge of trying to keep a third consecutive clean sheet at the tournament will be a tall order with Messi on the pitch.
“It’s going to be a tough game, obviously, playing against probably the best footballer ever,” defender Milos Degenek said on Friday. “Other than that, it’s 11 against 11. There are not 11 Messis, there is one. We know their team is full of stars.