Argentina’s World Cup hopes have been dealt another blow after it emerged that captain and talisman Lionel Messi is carrying a knock and is not at full fitness.
The Paris St Germain star did not take part in a full squad practice session on Thursday, opting to train alone, journalists at the team’s base camp in Doha reported.
Messi, who had a far-from-dream debut in Qatar as the Albiceleste slumped to a humbling 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, is not 100 percent fit but is still expected to start Saturday’s crunch clash against Mexico.
Argentina needs a result if the side is to retain serious hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage. They currently sit bottom of Group C, a point behind Mexico and Poland, who played out a goalless draw last Wednesday.
Coach Lionel Scaloni is still deciding on his starting 11 for Saturday’s match, according to those close to his entourage. Messi is expected to start, but there are selection dilemmas at both full-back positions and through the team’s spine. The key decisions are whether to start Cristian Romero or Lisandro Martinez at centre-half and whether to choose Enzo Fernandez or Alexis Mac Allister to play in centre midfield.
Concerns about Messi’s fitness had been voiced prior to kick-off in Qatar, though the playmaker had sought to dispel doubts about his physical condition.
"I feel very good physically, I'm in a great moment both personally and physically. I don't have any problems, I trained differently because I had a knock, but luckily it's nothing unusual," said ‘La Pulga’ before the tournament.
Messi did not shine in the defeat to Saudi Arabia, though he did give Argentina – who came into the match on a 36-game unbeaten streak – an early lead from the penalty spot.
Saleh Al-Shehri stunned the world by equalising early in the second half and Salem Al-Dawsari went on to strike a sensational winner just minutes later.
Argentina had three goals ruled out for offside in the opening period as their World Cup opener fell flat.
Speaking after the match, forward Lautaro Martínez admitted the result “hurt badly.”
"It's clear we lost the game because of our own mistakes, above all in the second half," said Martínez, who plays for Inter Milan. “There are details that make the difference and we have to correct mistakes.”
He added: "In the first half we should have scored more than one goal, but that's the World Cup. Now we have to rest and think about what's ahead. Those are two finals now."
Messi said the team had accepted their defeat and said the players were determined to put things right.
"This group is not going to give up. We will try to beat Mexico," said the captain. "There are no excuses, we're going to be more united than ever before. This group is strong and has shown it before."
Despite suffering one of the big World Cup shocks, Scaloni said he was sure all was not lost with two Group C matches still to come.
"What comes ahead is to rise up, to face Mexico. They will be tough, as everyone is at the World Cup. Now we need to win two games to move on. Of course, this is difficult but regardless of the result today we would try to win all the games anyway."
Two-time World Cup winners Argentina came into the tournament as one of the favourites. Scaloni insisted his team had not taken their opponents lightly.
"We fully respect Saudi Arabia as we do with other teams, that's not the reason for our defeat," said the coach, whose team had not lost since July 2019 prior to last Tuesday’s clash. "They are a good team with technical players, they are very well prepared physically."
Unsurprisingly, the Saudis were delighted with the victory. Celebrations erupted throughout the capital Riyadh after the final whistle blew, with fans forming impromptu dance circles and waving the sword-emblazoned national flag from the windows of speeding cars.
King Salman has declared a national holiday after the stunning World Cup win, ordering the benefit for “all employees in the public and private sectors, as well as male and female students at all educational levels.”
"All the stars in the sky were aligned for us, but don't forget Argentina are still a fantastic team," said Saudi Arabia's French coach Herve Renard after the match. "This is football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen."
As for enjoying the moment, he was eager to look ahead to the Saudis' next matches against Poland and Mexico, especially after those two sides played out a scoreless draw last Wednesday, putting Saudi Arabia in pole position.
"We are hurt, very hurt by the first defeat and at a World Cup too," said Aston Villa stopper Emiliano Martínez in the mixed zone after last Tuesday’s match. “Saturday is our first World Cup final."