World Cup All in the Game: Messi start, abject ending?

Denmark out to make it a French hat-trick; No Welsh Bale out; It’s coming home . . . to Africa

Lionel Messi’s senior international career has never followed the script many thought or hoped it would. On his senior debut with Argentina, against Hungary in 2005, the then teenage starlet was red-carded less than one minute after being introduced from the bench midway though the second half of what was a friendly match. While having his shirt tugged by Vilmos Vanczák, Messi threw back his right arm and caught the Hungarian.

Messi is 35 years of age now, in the twilight of what has been a glorious career. The missing piece for Messi remains the World Cup and so this one is seen as his last chance to complete the collection. If he doesn’t, it will forever be used as a barometer by many when it comes to comparisons with Maradona.

So Saturday night’s game against Mexico is huge. Argentina cannot afford to lose. A second defeat in the tournament, coming on the back of their shock loss to Saudi Arabia in the opening round, would leave their World Cup dreams in tatters.

“Obviously we have to win now,” said Messi. “It’s up to us to fix what we did wrong and get back to the basics of who we are.”


Mexico played out a scoreless draw with Poland in their opening game.

As if there wasn’t enough spice to the tie already, Mexico are managed by Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, a proud Argentine who previously worked with Messi in Barcelona.

Today, he could knock his home country out of the competition and end Messi’s chances of lifting the World Cup.

“What would you do in my place? I know where I was born, I’ll tell you the year, the name of the hospital, the city’s area code,” Martino said at a pre-match press conference. “But I have to do everything possible for Mexico to win.”

Messi can only hope the ending of his international story turns out better than the beginning.

Danes aim for a French hat-trick

Given the panache in how they overcame Australia in their first game, most pundits are expecting France to make it two wins from two when they play Denmark on Saturday. Denmark played out a scoreless draw in their Group D opener against Tunisia. However, the marauding Danes have had the better of the French in recent outings. In fact Denmark beat France twice this year in the Nations League – 2-1 in Paris in June and 2-0 in Copenhagen in September.

So the French are forewarned – though Didier Deschamps insists Saturday’s game has nothing to do with revenge.

“They are underestimated as a team,” said the French manager.

“We are talking about a four-month period where they beat us twice and made life very difficult for us.

“It is not a question of revenge because we know the Danish players and they know us. They can change system from one match to the other and that can give us different types of difficulties.”

Gareth can’t Bale Wales out this time

Gareth Bale managed only 36 touches of the ball as Wales lost to Iran. According to Opta Analyst, Bale had the fewest amount of touches of any outfield player on the pitch. By half-time he had been on the ball just 16 times and it didn’t improve much in a second half where Wales were outplayed by the Iranians for large chunks.

Speaking to BBC afterwards, Bale conceded the defeat was hugely damaging for the group.

“It’s gutting, we’re gutted, there’s no other way to say it,” he said.

But while Bale did receive criticism for his contribution, former Wales defender James Collins reminded BBC Radio listeners how important he was in getting the team to the World Cup in the first place.

“He will know he hasn’t performed to levels we’re used to,” said Collins. “But we can’t keep relying on Bale to dig us out, do something magic or score a worldie goal. We’re always talking about magic moments and even if he’s not playing well, it’d be a brave man to take Bale off.”

It’s coming home ... to Africa

Senegal manager Aliou Cisse feels the World Cup trophy might be relocating to Africa for the first time. The Senegal manager watched his side beat hosts Qatar 3-1 on Friday and afterwards felt emboldened to say a team from the continent could make history by winning the World Cup for the first time.

“Yes, an African country can win the World Cup, and I hope that it will be Senegal,” he said.

“All the teams who are competing at this World Cup are teams who are worthy of being here.

“It’s not like 30 or 35 years ago where the big fish were completely eating the smaller teams alive.”

In Numbers: 2

The Netherlands only had two shots during their 1-1 draw with Ecuador. And only one of those was on target, Cody Gakpo’s sixth-minute goal. In comparison, Ecuador had 15 shots with four on target.

In Words:

“We are aware of how tough this competition is. We wanted to go far, but we know we had limitations as a country. It’s a small country, not a very large population. The local league is not a very competitive one. It’s our first time at the World Cup.” – Qatar manager Felix Sanchez after the hosts lost their second game in the competition.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times