Doha: Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski head into Wednesday’s clash between Argentina and Poland with their futures hanging in the balance in what could be their final World Cup adventure.
Either of two of European club football’s biggest stars could fail to qualify for the knockout stages in Qatar and end their careers without a taste of glory at the most prestigious tournament of all.
Messi has already netted twice in his last attempt to emulate Diego Maradona and win the World Cup for Argentina as he tries to send Albiceleste out of Group C after losing to Saudi Arabia in their opening match.
Argentina beat Mexico 2-0 to salvage their campaign and are level on three points with Saudis in second place and one behind leaders Poland and only a win will guarantee 35-year-old Messi’s Qatar campaign ends in December will continue.
Argentina’s exit will bring fans back home and a worldwide army of Messi fans desperate to see him lift the World Cup.
It would also be a fitting climax to the career of one of soccer’s greatest ever players, but coach Lionel Scaloni sees such dogma as unnecessary.
After defeating Mexico to get their challenge back on track, he said, “It’s hard to explain to people whether the sun will rise tomorrow, win or lose.”
“What matters is how you do things.”
Lewandowski was brought on to fulfill his “childhood dream”, which was his fifth appearance in the final, a 2–0 win over the Saudis.
The Barcelona forward knows he may not get another chance at this level if Pole is ruled out of the tournament on Wednesday.
“I know this could be my last World Cup and I wanted to say that I have played and scored in the World Cup,” the 34-year-old said.
Lewandowski is a safe bet to make the last 16 as Poland will be through with a win or a draw, and even if they lose they are certain to be out if the Saudis beat Mexico.
Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz insisted it was not a contest between the forwards, despite the inevitable focus on the two big stars.
“It’s not just a match between Lewandowski and Messi, it’s not tennis,” he said.
The US reached the knockout stage after beating Iran 1-0 in a battle of geopolitical foes on Tuesday, setting up a second round meeting with the Netherlands.
Christian Pulisic’s winner put an end to the Iranians in the 38th minute of an enthralling encounter in Doha.
The meeting of the bitter ideological rivals was marked by a bad-tempered buildup, with Iran’s football federation demanding on Sunday that FIFA punish US Soccer for posting a modified version of its country’s flag on social media.
The defeat ended a fractious campaign for Iran, whose every move has been scrutinized in Qatar amid reports of players showing support for the massive anti-government protests that have rocked the Islamic republic.
“The dream is over,” said coach Carlos Queiroz. “Unfortunately football always punishes the team that doesn’t score.”
Gareth Southgate’s side beat Wales 3-0 in a one-sided ‘Battle of Britain’ set up by a Marcus Rashford brace and another strike from Manchester City star Phil Foden to stay two points behind England in Group B.
Rashford said his double, which included a spectacular 50th-minute free-kick at the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, was “what I play football for”.
Rashford said, “I have big ambitions for this team and I think we can play even better than what we showed today.”
England will face Senegal on Sunday after Chelsea defender Kalidou Coulibaly scored in a 2-1 win over Ecuador to finish second in Group A behind the Dutch and send the South Americans out.
Coulibaly said he would present the man-of-the-match award to the family of late Senegal’s Papa Bouba Diop after sending the Lions of Terangay into the last 16 for the second time in their history.
Cody Gakpo’s goal helped the Netherlands progress to the last 16 as group winners with a 2–0 straight win over hosts Qatar.
Qatar, which spent $200 billion to host the World Cup, crashed out of its own tournament with zero points and just one goal – the worst ever performance by a host country.