LIONEL MESSI will kick off his fifth and final World Cup with a clash against huge underdogs Saudi Arabia in Lusail.
Fans of the legendary No10 will find it difficult not to let their minds drift to next month’s final, which will take place in the very same venue 26 days on from Argentina’s opener.
But Messi, 35, is wily enough to know that games against sides like Saudi Arabia can be awkward – and must be treated with respect in order to win a tournament.
Finally winning his first piece of international silverware at last year’s Copa America was a huge monkey off the Paris Saint-Germain star’s back.
And Argentina fans hope that will give him extra belief going into the World Cup in Qatar.
Here, SunSport previews the clash that could see Messi and Co stake their claim to be tournament favourites.
How did they get there?
Argentina: Lionel Scaloni’s side comfortably qualified by finishing as runners-up in the Conmebol qualifying group.
A final record of 11 wins, six draws and no defeats did the job – although there was controversy along the way.
Their clash with Brazil was suspended shortly after kick off last year when health officials ran onto the pitch accusing four of their players of breaking Covid protocols.
Much haggling over a new date for the game followed – before it was eventually cancelled altogether when both country’s qualifications made it a dead rubber.
Saudi Arabia: Managed by suave international football legend Herve Renard, winner of two Afcons – Saudi Arabia qualified for Qatar with flying colours.
They received a bye through the initial phase of Asian qualifying, before topping a group featuring Uzbekistan, Palestine, Singapore and Yemen.
This success got them into the third and final stage – where a record of seven wins, two draws and one defeat was enough to qualify them alongside Japan from a group also featuring Australia, Oman, China and Vietnam.
What’s the form?
Argentina: The Albiceleste could hardly be in better shape, going into the World Cup on a 36-game unbeaten run.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to the Copa America 2019 semi-finals for their last defeat – when they lost 2-0 to Brazil.
Since then they have qualified for this tournament unbeaten, as well as winning Copa America and Finalissima trophies.
In their final pre-World Cup friendly they easily beat the United Arab Emirates 5-0.
Saudi Arabia: Renard’s men possess a mixed record in 2022 with only one thing certain – their games don’t produce many goals.
Of their 13 matches played during this calendar year, NONE have featured more than two successful strikes.
They lost 1-0 to Croatia in their final pre-World Cup friendly, holding off 2018’s finalists until the 82nd minute.
World Cup 2022
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Who are the managers?
Argentina: The Albiceleste have been managed by former West Ham defender Lionel Scaloni since 2018.
In that time, the 44-year-old guided them to their first trophy in 28 YEARS – tasting glory at the Copa America 2021.
Prior to landing the gig, Scaloni had been assistant to Jorge Sampaoli.
Saudi Arabia: A smooth operator around the international game, Frenchman Herve Renard certainly experienced an eclectic career prior to taking the Saudi job in 2019.
The 54-year-old’s early club career featured stints in the French lower leagues, as well as brief stays at Cambridge United and Vietnamese side Nam Dinh.
He made his name in the international game by winning Afcon with both Zambia and the Ivory Coast – also managing Morocco, as well as Sochaux and Lille in Ligue 1.
Who are the star players?
Argentina: LIONEL MESSI is aiming to finally complete his career clean sweep by lifting the World Cup at his fifth attempt in Qatar.
The 35-year-old has previously come as close as the final, losing 1-0 to Germany after extra time in 2014.
Despite his advancing years, the 165-cap star has been in sparkling form for his club this season.
The Paris Saint-Germain star has scored 12 goals and assisted a further 14 in 19 appearances for his club this term.
Saudi Arabia: SALEM AL-DAWSARI is set to be his country’s talisman once again at this winter’s World Cup finals in Qatar.
The attacker was a key man in 2018, scoring his side’s last minute winner against Egypt during the group stage.
Al-Dawsari, 31, has played almost the entirety of his career at Saudi heavyweights Al-Hilal – scoring 79 goals and laying on 62 assists in 309 games – winning the Asian Champions League twice in the process.
He had a brief spell in Spain in 2018, playing once on loan at Villarreal.
What’s the head to head?
Argentina wins: 2
Saudi Arabia wins: 0
What TV channel will show the game?
ITV1 will broadcast the match with a 10am kick-off on Tuesday.
There will also be a live stream on ITV Hub.
What are the odds?
Argentina win: 1/7
Saudi Arabia: 20/1
All odds provided by Betfair
Argentina are obviously huge favourites, but Saudi Arabia will be organised and resolute in their attempts to keep them out.
We expect Messi and Co to still win fairly comfortably… but the Saudis’ 2022 form suggests that there won’t be more than two goals in it.