The only hole in Lionel Messi’s glittering football (aka soccer) resumé is the one that continues to define his legacy at the international level.
Though comparisons to his club career will forever be linked to Cristiano Ronaldo, it is the ones to compatriot and legend Diego Maradona that are now in sharp focus for the 35-year-old Messi. The Argentine attacking midfielder is making his fifth — and what he said will be his final — World Cup appearance, this time hoping Qatar will be where he finally lifts the Jules Rimet trophy and silences the naysayers who claim he is not Maradona’s equal.
Messi’s brilliance puts Argentina on the short list of countries with realistic expectations to win the World Cup, but there is also a solid supporting cast. He already has been to one World Cup final in 2014, when Germany proved the best team in the world can stifle the best player in the world. Four years ago, Messi did his part, helping Argentina scrape through group play and notching two assists in the Round of 16. But eventual champion France pulled the Albiceleste apart in a defenses-be-damned 4-3 thriller.
Oddsmakers are in consensus that Argentina is among the top four sides that could emerge victorious in Qatar. Yet two enormous obstacles could loom in the knockout round in the form of eternal South American rival Brazil and the defending champions, Les Bleus. But with Messi on a mission to give Argentina its long-sought third title and first since Maradona’s in 1986, La Albiceleste will definitely draw plenty of looks in the sports wagering market.
Some silverware after strong qualifying play
MESSI WHAT AN ASSIST 🔥🔥🔥#Finalissima pic.twitter.com/jNkOFYJWKz
— Amadike Prince (@amadike_prince) June 1, 2022
Though Messi has never won the World Cup, the Paris-Saint Germain midfield maestro and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner did end one title drought last year in powering Argentina to its first Copa America title since 1993. Argentina further burnished its title credentials in impressive fashion this summer, routing European champion Italy 3-0 in the Finalissima at Wembley Stadium in London, as Messi assisted on goals in both halves.
Prior to the Finalissima, the Albiceleste avoided the drama that befell them in 2018 World Cup qualifying, when Messi had to rescue them on the final match day. Argentina went unbeaten in 17 qualifiers this cycle, winning 11 and finishing second to Brazil while conceding just eight goals. The two superpowers played to a scoreless draw in Argentina and abandoned the return match after five minutes in September 2021 due to COVID concerns, but both sides were head and shoulders above the rest of the South American field as the only ones to accumulate more than 30 points.
Argentina will carry a 35-match unbeaten streak (26 wins, 9 draws) in all competitions — the longest run in its storied history — into its final World Cup tune-up that dates back to its 2019 Copa America semifinal loss to Brazil. Should the Albiceleste discard the United Arab Emirates in their friendly and then not lose to Saudi Arabia and Mexico in their first two Group C matches in Qatar, they will break Italy’s record 37-match unbeaten run (30 wins, 7 draws) established from 2018-21.
Lionel Scaloni, who took over the team following its Round of 16 flameout in Russia, was on Messi’s first World Cup team in 2006 as a role player. If everyone is fully healthy — currently a big if, as winger Ángel di María and striker Paulo Dybala are currently nursing injuries — Argentina’s offensive firepower stacks up favorably with any other country going to Qatar.
Di María may be pivotal to Argentina’s chances, as his play on the wing in the 4-3-3 formation prevents defenses from collapsing on Messi, since he tends to float into the middle with the ball. Dybala is expected to return to action this week for AS Roma after dealing with a hamstring injury, but Scaloni said he will only take players who are healthy enough to play in the Nov. 22 opener versus Saudi Arabia.
Messi, who has 90 goals in 164 international appearances, has shown fine form at PSG with 12 goals in 18 appearances across all competitions. He slots third behind England’s Harry Kane and PSG teammate and Frenchman Kylian Mbappé for top goal-scorer options at most sportsbooks, with +1200 on the Kambi platform powering BetRivers and Barstool Sportsbook.
For Golden Boot honors, +1400 is the top play at Caesars Sportsbook, FanDuel, and Kambi. Messi is also short-listed for the Golden Ball, awarded to the top player at the World Cup. Barstool and BetRivers pace that offering at +1100, with PointsBet close behind at +1000.
If Messi is more playmaker than goal-scorer, sportsbooks consider Lautaro Martinez to be the most likely finisher of those chances. The Inter Milan No. 9 is off to a solid start in Serie A with six goals in 12 appearances and shined in South American qualifying with seven goals.
Argentina’s first goal by Lautaro Martinez
Messi’s pass 🥶🔥 pic.twitter.com/GSnoVO5uAQ
— SHA3WAZA (@SHA3WAZA_3) September 24, 2022
Martinez is a +2900 option at FanDuel and +2500 at Caesars to win the Golden Boot, while BetMGM is offering +2500 for him to finish as the top goal-scorer. He is a deep sleeper pick for the Golden Ball, with DraftKings and Kambi offering Martinez at +3500.
But for all the offensive flair at Scaloni’s disposal, Argentina’s chances at a deep run may hinge on goalkeeper Emi Martinez between the sticks and the central defense pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero. Martinez became the No. 1 for the Albiceleste during World Cup qualifying and claimed the Golden Glove award at the 2021 Copa America, highlighted by stopping three penalty kicks in a shootout win over Colombia.
Martinez can be grabbed at +750 at PointsBet to win the Golden Glove, while Kambi and DraftKings are offering +700.
Breaking down the main plays
Lisandro Martinez says Argentina will go to war for Messi at the World Cup 😤 pic.twitter.com/aRPJyvxpTH
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 28, 2022
Sportsbooks have a fairly narrow range for Argentina to win the World Cup, with FanDuel the best value at +700 and Caesars, PointsBet, and Kambi right behind at +650. What is interesting is that PointsBet does not rate the Albiceleste as highly as other books when scanning markets for deepest advance, perhaps peeking ahead to a potential round of 16 rematch with France should either slip up in group play and not finish first.
The Aussie-based book has Argentina as a +1000 option to finish second, notably higher than FanDuel at +850. PointsBet has the Albiceleste at +375 to reach the final, +200 for the semifinals, and -125 to the Round of Eight — all top prices among books with these offers.
Argentina is an overwhelming favorite to win Group C, with FanDuel’s -220 the shortest odds. For those picking total points in the first round, FanDuel is the best play for the maximum nine points at +430, while BetMGM is tops for six and seven points at +225.
In picking teams to advance out of Group C, Argentina can be paired with Poland at +110 at BetMGM and +125 with Mexico at DraftKings and Caesars. Picking a straight 1-2 finish, BetMGM and Caesars offer the best play for Argentina-Poland at +185, while DraftKings and Caesars are offering +225 for Argentina-Mexico.
Photo: Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY