Different worries, same goal as Mexico, Poland duel for qualification
Mexico and Poland kick-start their World Cup campaign on Tuesday knowing the outcome of the clash could decide who survives beyond the group stage of the 2022 tournament.
Group favourites Argentina take on unlikely contenders Saudi Arabia in the earlier duel, and barring a major upset in that match the second spot in the final group rankings is likely to go to either Mexico or Poland.
Mexico’s strong record of being unbeaten in their World Cup openers is a statistic any team could fear. They won five and drew one in the most recent six tournaments, always making it to the knockout stage.
The last time Mexico failed to find their way past the group stage was back in 1978 — when they earned zero points in the group Poland topped.
This, however, is where the pros seem to end for Mexico this time round.
Coach Gerardo Martino’s side is short in the striker department as, to the bafflement of Mexico’s fans, the Argentine decided to leave out their all-time top scorer Javier Hernandez despite his good form this season.
Further dampening the mood, Mexico lost their last pre-World Cup friendly against Sweden, conceding a late goal and heading to Qatar one day later.
Sweden was the last side Poland beat on their way to seal their spot in the World Cup finals when they grabbed a 2-0 victory in the March playoff.
That was coach Czeslaw Michniewicz first game in charge, and since then, the atmosphere around the team has been that of expect nothing and appreciate everything.
“Indeed, this is something new for me,” said former Poland Under-21 manager who previously had no international experience with any senior squad.
“For now I am calm, I don’t feel any pressure. I’m happy that all the players are healthy. I know who I have at my disposal and the most difficult decision, the selection, is behind me. (Now let’s) work according to the plan.”
If Poland survives the group stage it will be the first time since 1986, and they failed to qualify for the finals more times than they qualified during the intervening years.
But Poland possess something Mexico do not – a world class striker. Robert Lewandowski has said it may or may not be his last World Cup, but has approached it as if it is, and will want to make sure this is one to remember.