Inter Miami are sitting comfortably at the top of the Eastern Conference table but face a challenge on Thursday when Columbus Crew visit for an MLS clash at Chase Stadium.

The Herons are two points clear at the summit of the East standings after snatching a 2-1 triumph over Philadelphia Union last time out.

Yet Wilfried Nancy's Crew have triumphed in their last four road games in the league, battling to a 3-2 victory over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on Friday.

"It's a massive run and just shows how good we are mentally" Mohamed Farsi said of the streak.

"I think we have more away wins right now than last year all season. I think so or the same, so I'm happy for that."

Farsi has become a central figure for Columbus and scored the go-ahead goal in the 53rd minute against the Pigeons, much to the delight of head coach Nancy.

"The idea for Mo is to be more consistent because he brings a lot of energy to the team," Nancy said.

"He wants also to show himself that he's a better player than last year when we had the same deal here. Good for him.

"Now, he knows that he has to work on certain things, but I'm happy for him. He's doing a good job."

Despite missing Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Matis Rojas – all of whom are on Copa America duty – the nine-man Herons overcame the Union thanks to Leo Afonso's last-gasp strike.

"It is clear that in 10 times, nine of these games we would end up losing," Miami head coach Gerardo Martino said.

"Absolutely all the credit belongs to them. That has to do with the effort, with the character, with the guts that the boys had."

Afonso echoed his coach's sentiment ahead of another crunch match-up.

"It's difficult when you're missing the best players in history in their positions," he said. "But we got to keep working, and we got to try our best."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Inter Miami – Jordi Alba

With stars Messi and Suarez on international duty, Jordi Alba will be expected to step up once more for the Herons.

The former Barcelona full-back has two goals this year in MLS, as well as five assists – that creative tally is only bettered by Messi (13) and Julian Gressel (six) among Miami team-mates.

Columbus Crew – Diego Rossi

Diego Rossi remains an integral figure in attack for the Crew, whose Javier Hernandez (five goals) has only scored more than the forward's four in 10 MLS games this year.

With other Uruguayan colleagues at the Copa, Rossi will hope to extend his fine scoring form here.

MATCH PREDICTION – DRAW

Miami may be leading the way in the East but a draw appears the most likely outcome at Chase Stadium.

The Herons have never lost a home match against the Crew (W2 D1), though Columbus did earn their first away point against David Beckham's Miami-based side on the last visit to Fort Lauderdale, a 2-2 draw in July 2023.

Martino will hope to continue a strong run of form with another victory, however.

Miami have won eight of their last 11 regular-season matches (D2 L1) following a 2-1 victory at Philadelphia on Saturday. Since that run began in mid-April, Martino's side have managed 26 points and scored 28 goals – both league-leading figures.

Yet Columbus should not be ruled out for a win either.

The Crew have won four straight regular-season away matches for the second time in club history after a four-match run in August-September 2015.

Columbus have lost only one of their last 11 regular-season road matches, dating back to last September (W5 D5), and that streak could continue here.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

Inter Miami win – 37.4%

Columbus Crew win – 36.3%

Draw – 26.4%

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are expected to feature when Inter Miami host St. Louis City in MLS on Saturday, with the Herons looking to bounce back from a midweek defeat.

Miami saw a 10-match unbeaten run in league play halted on Wednesday, as they were beaten 3-1 by Atlanta United.

That result came despite Messi and Suarez returning to Gerardo Martino's lineup, having both missed a 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend.

According to assistant coach Javier Morales, both players will be fit and available for this week's match as Miami target a return to winning ways.

"Everyone is optimum to play," Morales said. "Today we will train, and the coaching staff will watch players but there is no physical problem. 

"Afterwards we will talk to the players but most of all Martino will feel the game and what it needs. 

"But we will play the strongest team to conclude this part of the season strongly before the international window. Everyone is fit and wants to play.

"The plan was always to play the strongest side against St. Louis, the result on Wednesday did not modify that strategy."

St. Louis have lost three successive games to slide to 11th in the Western Conference standings, three points outside the wild-card places.

They were beaten 2-1 by the Seattle Sounders on home soil last weekend, and head coach Bradley Carnell knows a swift response is important.

"I challenge the staff, the players challenge me, and then we try to execute on gameday," Carnell said after that defeat.

"None of us are happy with the situation, let me be clear. We've experienced far better, we've had a lot more joy and a lot more smiles on our faces.

"But we get up in the morning and we go again. That's the message for the boys."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Inter Miami – Lionel Messi

Messi scored Miami's only goal in their defeat to Atlanta on Wednesday. 

It was the first time Messi's club had lost a match in which he scored for over three years, since he netted for Barcelona in a 2-1 loss to Celta Vigo in May 2021.

St. Louis City – Eduard Lowen

Lowen recorded his 17th MLS assist for St. Louis against Seattle last Saturday, setting up a goal for Tomas Totland. His 17 assists have set up goals for 10 different team-mates.

MATCH PREDICTION – INTER MIAMI WIN

St Louis have lost three straight regular-season matches for the first time in franchise history. 

They had lost just three of their previous 18 regular-season matches in a run dating back to last September, winning five and drawing 10 in that span.

St. Louis did beat Miami 3-0 in the teams' first meeting last July, but a lot has changed since that game, which was the Herons' last before Messi debuted in the Leagues Cup six days later.

Miami's 3-1 loss to Atlanta was their first home defeat with Messi in their starting lineup, having previously won 10 and drawn one of 11 matches with the Argentine starting on home turf.

They are strong favourites to bounce back with victory over struggling opponents this weekend. 

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

Inter Miami – 59.8%

St. Louis City – 19.1%

Draw – 21%

Gerardo Martino refused to comment on suggestions that Lionel Messi was saving himself for the Copa America, following Inter Miami's 3-1 defeat by Atlanta United.

Despite his 11th goal of the season - and first in three games - Messi was unable to prevent a first loss in 11 MLS matches for the Eastern Conference leaders at Chase Stadium.

Saba Lobjanidze scored in each half to put 12th-place Atlanta in control and, though Messi halved the deficit, Jamal Thiare struck in the 73rd minute to snap the visitors' nine-game winless streak.

Messi, who was back in the starting line-up after missing Miami's 2-1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps last time out, will soon link up with Argentina ahead of their Copa America title defence, which starts in a couple of weeks' time.

Martino was asked whether he thought the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner's focus was distracted by the forthcoming tournament in the United States, where the reigning world champions will seek their third silverware in four years.

"No, I will not speculate if Messi is saving himself for Copa America because [that question has] no validity," the head coach said.

On Miami's performance, he continued: "The first feeling is that we were missing one more gear compared to Atlanta, and that was evident in the first half and during the second half. 

"It was a night where the team regressed compared to other games. I think we were very well outmatched, and they beat us well.

"The conditions were favourable, much more for us than them. But their position on the table is deceiving, and they showed that."

Gonzalo Pineda remains confident things will turn for Atlanta United after nine MLS games without a victory, as the Five Stripes prepare to visit Inter Miami on Wednesday.

Atlanta sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, 21 points adrift of pacesetters Miami, after failing to win any of their last nine matches since the start of April (four draws, five defeats).

Sporting Kansas City (two) are the only team in MLS to earn fewer than the four points Atlanta have picked up in that span.

However, Pineda believes the fact Atlanta are still creating chances is a major positive, saying Thiago Almada's return to full fitness will surely lead to an upturn.

Speaking after Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Los Angeles FC, he said: "I'm very confident in the team, honestly. 

"Once again I thought we created some big chances, and we didn't have Thiago available for more than 30 minutes. With that, we have our backline being stable again and we'll have our best attacking pieces together again.

"That's the confidence I have. We're creating chances and we just need to be a little bit more clinical."

Miami, meanwhile, continued their strong form with a 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps last time out, despite Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets all being rested.

While Messi's absence infuriated many of the 55,000 fans present in Vancouver, coach Gerardo Martino says it was important to give the Argentina great a breather, and he is expected to feature on Wednesday.

"It must be stressed that he has played a lot of minutes this season, so we had to find a moment to give him a break and to rest him for a match," Martino said of Messi.

"In this specific case, the trip to Vancouver made the most sense. We understand people's frustrations, especially because of the desire these fans have to see these players. 

"But as coaches, we have to make these decisions that are uncomfortable and that will frustrate people. Ultimately we have to look after our players and the team."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Inter Miami – Leonardo Campana

Prior to missing last week's trip to Vancouver, Messi had gone consecutive starts without a goal contribution for the second time since joining Miami last year. 

Fortunately for the Herons, Campana has stepped up, hitting back-to-back winners against D.C. United and the Whitecaps. He has four goals in MLS this term, despite only making six starts.

Atlanta United – Brooks Lennon

No Atlanta player has recorded more key passes in MLS this year than Lennon's 33, a tally only Almada can match. 

If the Five Stripes are to end their dismal run of form, he could have a key role to play.

MATCH PREDICTION – INTER MIAMI WIN

Atlanta are winless in 13 straight away matches in all competitions (seven draws, six defeats), and have now managed just four wins in their last 43 road games.

Miami, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last 10 MLS matches, winning seven of the last eight. They even showed they can cope without Messi on Saturday, recording just their third win in 14 matches without the Argentine since his arrival last July (five draws, six losses).

Miami have never lost a home game against Atlanta, winning four and drawing two versus them, including winning each of the teams' last three clashes in Fort Lauderdale.

The only road win in the 12-match history of the teams' series was a 2-1 victory for the Herons at Atlanta in September 2020.

Martino's team enter Wednesday's game as big favourites, regardless of the status of their stars.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

Inter Miami – 51.2%

Atlanta United – 25.7%

Draw – 23.1%

Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez all did not travel for Inter Miami's 2-1 victory over Vancouver Whitecaps, leading head coach Gerardo Martino to apologise.

The former Barcelona trio were expected to feature for the Eastern Conference leaders on Sunday, but were rested as Martino's side triumphed thanks to goals from Robert Taylor and Leonardo Campana.

Vancouver's BC Place was expecting a larger than usual home crowd to greet the global superstars, though Whitecaps Axel Schuster apologised once the hosts got wind of Messi's absence.

With Martino subsequently leaving Messi and his former Blaugrana stars at home, the Miami boss felt it necessary to offer his apologies to the expectant Vancouver crowd.

"Obviously it is very important for us because of the absences we had," Martino said after the victory that made it 10 unbeaten games for Miami. 

"The expectation that people have. I really don't think I have to apologise, but in some ways we are very sorry for not being able to travel with our stars.

"There is a question, we have or have come without our great players. Leo, Luis, Busi, Diego Gomez and still we have competed very well."

Schuster and the Whitecaps had previously echoed Martino's apologetic sentiment on Thursday when news emerged of their absence.

"We know that there will also be a lot of disappointed fans," Schuster said in a statement released by Vancouver.

Disappointment followed on the pitch as Vancouver slipped to six straight MLS matches without victory.

Gerardo Martino is expecting Lionel Messi to play for Inter Miami at home to D.C. United this weekend, though he emphasised he would not take "any risks".

Messi was absent as Miami were held to a 0-0 draw away at Orlando City last time out with what Martino described as a "bit of a niggle".

The goalless draw, combined with FC Cincinnati's win over Atlanta United, means Miami's lead at the top of the Eastern Conference has been closed to just a point ahead of this weekend's fixtures.

As Miami look to get back to winning ways this weekend, Martino believes Messi will be able to return, though he will not rush the former Barcelona man back onto the field.

"The fact is that he felt some pain in his movements and, given that we're on a run of three games in the space of a week, we felt the most sensible thing to do was leave him out of today's game," Martino told reporters.

"The plan is that he'll play on Saturday, but it’s going to depend on how he progresses. We’re not going to take any risks, and on Thursday and Friday we'll assess his fitness."

D.C. were handed a first loss in four as they were thumped 4-1 by the New York Red Bulls in midweek, but head coach Troy Lesesne believes the defeat does not cancel out the previous solid form displayed by his side.

"For the last three weeks, we can feel good about our performance, and tonight doesn’t just erase all that," Lesesne said.

“We're building still. We can recognise tonight was a setback.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Inter Miami – Luis Suarez

With Messi absent against Orlando, Suarez couldn't make it four straight games with a goal as he drew a blank. With Messi potentially missing again on Saturday, Suarez will be keen to get back among the goals to help his team to victory.

D.C. United – Christian Benteke

Benteke was held scoreless against the Red Bulls despite taking six shots in the match. It was Benteke’s third MLS match this season with at least six shots with all other D.C. players having combined to do that once in league play in 2024 (Gabriel Pirani). The former Liverpool man certainly isn't afraid of pulling the trigger, though he will be hoping this time to find the back of the net with one or more of his efforts at goal.

MATCH PREDICTION – MIAMI WIN

D.C. are unbeaten in three all-time matches at Miami. D.C. are the only opponent that have visited Miami more than once in regular season play and never lost.

Miami’s five-game winning streak ended Wednesday with a 0-0 draw with Orlando. Miami had exactly seven shots for the second straight match, the club’s first time having consecutive MLS matches with single-digit shots since May-June 2023.

In Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Red Bulls, D.C. attempted 22 shots while allowing 11. The plus-11 shot differential was United’s highest in a loss by three or more goals since a 3-0 loss to the Columbus Crew in April 2013 (+14).

In 2024, Miami have one win in their five MLS matches (two draws, two defeats) without Messi and seven victories in their nine games with him. The team’s goals per game average in MLS matches this season is 3.2 with Messi, and 1.2 without him.

Messi is clearly Miami's star man, then, and with him looking likely to feature this weekend, the hosts will be the favourites to return to winning ways at the top of the Eastern Conference.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

Inter Miami - 50.8%

D.C United - 22.9%

Draw - 26.3%

Oscar Pareja accepts Orlando City need to tweak their approach ahead of Wednesday's rematch with Florida rivals Inter Miami, who thrashed them 5-0 when the teams last met in early March.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez scored two goals apiece as Miami crushed Orlando in their third game of the season in Fort Lauderdale, one of their MLS-high eight wins in 2024. 

Miami have won each of their last five games – the latest being a 3-2 triumph at CF Montreal on Saturday – to stay three points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference, while Orlando are languishing in 11th.

Pareja's team enter Wednesday's derby in good spirits after beating the Philadelphia Union 3-2 last time out, though, and he is relishing the quick turnaround.

"This is a project where you have to be prepared every day. After this result in Philadelphia, we have to prepare the derby, then think about going to the West Coast," he said.

On Miami, he added: "There are always two ways to prepare the games. 

"Normally we think about putting relevancy on the way we do things, but obviously we have to have references on the other team.

"How can we impose our model or control them? We already have a game where we played them, and we'll try to make less mistakes than we did that day."

During Miami's last match, Messi hit out at a newly introduced rule which forced him to leave the pitch due to requiring treatment following a heavy challenge from Montreal's George Campbell.

Had Campbell been booked, the restart would have been delayed for Messi.

As he was not, Miami were forced to play with 10 men for two minutes, but Matias Rojas scored a free-kick in the Argentine's absence, kickstarting their comeback from 2-0 down.

Coach Gerardo Martino said of the incident: "With these new rule changes, there are situations that must be revised. 

"The foul was clear and was a yellow card, and ultimately it was us that lost Leo for two minutes."

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

Orlando City – Nicolas Lodeiro 

Lodeiro assisted all three of Orlando's goals against the Union last time out, becoming the third player in club history to tee up three goals in an MLS game, after Kaka and Yoshimar Yotun. 

The former Seattle Sounders man is also one of just nine players in MLS history to have a three-assist game with two different teams.

Inter Miami – Luis Suarez 

Suarez's goal against Montreal last time out was his 11th in MLS this season, taking him ahead of Messi in the Golden Boot race. 

The Uruguayan leads the way despite only making nine league starts, and he also scored twice in Miami's 5-0 rout of Orlando back in March.

MATCH PREDICTION – ORLANDO CITY WIN

Despite Miami's fine form, there are definitely vulnerabilities to be found – they are the first team in MLS history to concede the first goal in five straight games and win all of them.

They may not be able to rely on rescue acts forever. Orlando overcame a 1-0 deficit to beat Philadelphia 3-2 last time out. 

Since the start of last season, the Lions have won six and drawn five of their 10 MLS games when conceding the first goal. Their average of 1.1 points per game in such contests during that span is second only to FC Cincinnati's 1.13. 

Orlando are also unbeaten in six all-time home matches against Miami, winning two and drawing four. The Herons are the only team Orlando have hosted five or more times and never lost to in MLS play.

With Miami reliant on a few wonderful but ageing stars, the exploits of their recent matches may just catch up with them on Wednesday.  

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY 

Orlando City – 52.8%

Inter Miami – 21%

Draw – 26.2%

Lionel Messi was left frustrated by being kept on the sidelines after an injury scare in Saturday's win over CF Montreal, with Inter Miami head coach Gerardo Martino calling for a revision of MLS rulings.

The former Barcelona superstar was visibly furious after being forced off temporarily from a George Campbell foul, with the Miami forward missing a chance to take a presentable free-kick opportunity.

New MLS regulations state players must leave the pitch for two minutes if the referee stops play due to a potential injury that leaves them on the ground for over 15 seconds.

Following the 3-2 triumph over Montreal, Martino questioned the ruling and suggested it punished the wrong party.

"There are situations that must be revised," the Herons boss said.

"In Leo's situation, he was clearly fouled. The player deserved a yellow card, which would mean Messi would've never left the field for two minutes.

"As I understand it, the team that suffered the foul was punished. With these new rule changes, some situations must be revised.

"The infraction was clear and was a yellow card, and ultimately it was us that lost Leo for two minutes."

Miami were left further aggrieved despite making it five straight wins to move three points clear at the Eastern Conference summit.

Luis Suarez failed to leave the pitch in under 10 seconds when replaced by Leo Campana in the 92nd minute, with new MLS regulations meaning the fourth official delayed the substitution for another minute.

"In the case of Suarez, we had a very important difference with the fourth referee in respect to the minute," Martino added.

"We thought Suarez exited the pitch in under a minute, he did not see it that way and so Leo Campana's entry to the game was delayed."

CF Montreal coach Laurent Courtois has been delighted by the way his players have adapted to his methods this season, though he joked he would still swap any of them for Lionel Messi ahead of Saturday's clash with Inter Miami.

Montreal sit 11th in the Eastern Conference standings with 12 points from their first 10 league games under Courtois, 12 adrift of early pacesetters Miami. 

However, plenty of outside factors have impacted their start to the season, not least the fact they have played eight of their matches – including each of their first six – on the road.

Courtois is proud of the way his players have learned on the job, though he still believes there is more to come from them. 

"I keep telling them that I have no in-between. I'm either going to be your biggest fan, or really tough and really demanding. Because we don't have time to play. We don't have time to lose," he said.

"At the same time, I'm such a fan of what they've been doing, accepting the stuff that I've been asking them to do, while being on the road for three months. 

"I think they want to play soccer in the right way. I have a few codes that I think can be helpful. 

"We need together to come up with common ground to execute in this way. They're still far from what I think they can do."

However, Courtois does see one area for improvement ahead of Saturday's clash with the Herons, quipping: "I wouldn't change any of my players for any others – except Messi."

Miami trounced the New York Red Bulls 6-2 last week, with Messi scoring once and laying on five assists in an incredible performance. 

That display left coach Gerardo Martino in disbelief, as he said: "I always say this, and it's redundant at this point, but he always does something new. 

"To have an involvement in all six goals of a team's goals in a 6-2 is something that will be difficult to see again."

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

CF Montreal – Jonathan Sirois

Last week's 4-1 defeat at Nashville SC was the seventh time Montreal have conceded four or more goals in a regular-season MLS game since the start of 2023, more than any other team.

Only two MLS goalkeepers have faced more shots than Sirois (55) in 2024, though he has conceded 2.1 goals fewer than Opta's expected goals on target (xGoT) model suggests he should have. He will need a big performance against Messi and company.

Inter Miami – Lionel Messi

Messi has 10 goals and 12 assists in eight league matches this season. No player in MLS history had reached 10 goals and 10 assists in fewer than 16 appearances in a season before.

The Argentine has also reached 25 goal contributions in 14 MLS matches overall, seven fewer than any other player in MLS history required to bring up that figure.

MATCH PREDICTION – CF MONTREAL WIN

Montreal have won six of their nine all-time meetings with Miami (one draw, two defeats), including a 3-2 victory over the Herons on March 10. 

Only New York City FC (2.22) and the Chicago Fire (2.17) average more points per match against Miami than Montreal (2.11) among teams the Herons have faced five or more times.

While Montreal are winless in their last three league games, the last two of those were played on the road.

On home soil, they are a different proposition, going unbeaten through their last six games (two wins, four draws), including a win and a draw in their first two home matches of 2024. They have only lost three of their last 17 regular-season home games dating back to last April (10 wins, four draws).

Miami, despite their star quality, have been vulnerable this campaign, trailing in nine MLS games – a joint-high alongside the San Jose Earthquakes. They cannot keep relying on rescue acts.

OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

CF Montreal – 47.2%

Inter Miami – 25.7%

Draw – 27.1%

Gerardo Martino is an excellent man-manager and would have made Inter Miami MLS Cup contenders had a Lionel Messi-inspired Herons been able to gatecrash this year's playoffs.

That is the view of Houston Dynamo midfielder Hector Herrera, who played under the former Barcelona boss when he coached Mexico's national team between 2019 and 2022.

Having guided Atlanta United to the MLS Cup in 2018, Martino became Miami boss in July as the David Beckham-owned franchise brought in former Barcelona trio Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. 

Those arrivals immediately led to an upturn for Miami, who won the Leagues Cup in August following a series of mesmerising displays from Messi, but they were unable to force their way into the playoffs.

Messi only made four regular-season starts for Miami this year as the Argentina great battled a niggling injury, and the Herons ultimately finished nine points adrift of the Eastern Conference's wild card spots.

Miami will certainly be among the favourites to enjoy a postseason run in 2024, and Herrera feels their rivals were slightly fortunate to see them fall short this campaign.

Asked what makes Martino special as a coach, Herrera told Stats Perform: "I think his personality and the work he does on every team he has.

"That is what has made him win so many things and be so well-known in the world of football. 

"Personally, he is a coach who has helped me a lot, I have a great relationship with him and I love the way he plays. 

"He has shown it with every team he has had and until today at Inter Miami he gave another face to the team and got better results. 

"We knew that if they entered the playoffs, they were going to be one of the favourite teams and were going to compete for the championship."

Herrera fell just short of reaching the MLS Cup Final after the Dynamo were defeated by Los Angeles FC, who will face Columbus Crew following their comeback victory over Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati.

Former Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo Martino has been appointed as the new head coach of Inter Miami.

The 60-year-old Argentinian arrives at the Major League Soccer outfit co-owned by David Beckham after they sacked the latter’s ex-Manchester United team-mate Phil Neville earlier this month.

It will reunite Martino with his compatriot Lionel Messi, with the World Cup winner to join the Florida side after leaving Paris St Germain at the end of his contract.

Martino, who coached Messi with Barcelona and Argentina, said in a club statement: “I’m very excited to join a big club like Inter Miami and I know together we can accomplish many great things.

“The club has the necessary infrastructure to be a major competitor in the region and I believe that with everyone’s hard work and commitment we can get there.”

Beckham said: “’Tata’ is a highly respected figure in our sport whose track record speaks for itself.

“We are confident that his achievements in the game and experience as a head coach will inspire our team and excite our fans and look forward to seeing the impact he will have on and off the field.”

Martino has been a Copa America runner-up twice with Argentina and once with Paraguay, and also overseen Mexico winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is hoping he can help star striker Robert Lewandowski achieve his ambitions on the international stage.

Lewandowski will spearhead the Polish challenge at the World Cup in Qatar, starting with Tuesday's Group C encounter with Mexico.

The Barcelona striker has enjoyed a glittering club career, most notably at Bayern Munich with whom he won the Champions League in 2020, but has found success harder to come by with the national team. Lewandowski is Poland's record goalscorer with 76 in 134 appearances – including nine in their qualifying campaign – but has never scored at a World Cup.

Juventus goalkeeper Szczesny said: "I think it's important for him, he is very motivated.

"No-one doubts that Robert is one of the best players in the world and he would definitely like to see his ambitions come true – not only at his club but also with the national team. We all have the same ambition, not just him."

Szczesny, 32, and Lewandowski, 34, are most likely playing their final World Cup and the former Arsenal man is hoping to enjoy his "last dance".

He added: "I do hope we catch a good rhythm and the music will lead us on. This is definitely my last World Cup, and for some of the other players probably, so it would be great to have something to remember as a success."

He is expecting a tight opener against Tata Martino's men, however.

"They are at a similar level to us and also have some wonderful players," he said.

"We are well prepped, we have analysed them well, but we will need to bring the theory to the pitch. We could win or also lose so it will be an interesting game."

Mexico endured an unconvincing qualifying phase and their form has not improved in recent months with just four wins from their last 11 games.

Expectations are low back home, but Martino insisted that was in contrast to strong belief within the squad.

The former Barcelona coach said: "We always try – regardless of what happens – to be aligned with our whole country.

"We reached the World Cup and we will try to be strong, from what we can control of course. This national team is very strong internally. I don’t know if what happens outside makes us stronger, but what happens internally certainly does."

Robert Lewandowski is dreaming of scoring at a World Cup for the first time in a stark warning to Poland's opening Group C opponents Mexico.

The prolific striker played a huge part in Poland's qualifying campaign with nine goals and four assists, with those 13 direct-goal involvements twice as many as any team-mate.

However, he failed to find the net in 270 minutes of play in his only previous World Cup appearance in Russia four years ago, with Poland finishing bottom of their group.

But after scoring 211 goals at club level since that tournament – 42 more than next-best Kylian Mbappe – the Barcelona star is eager to put that right in Qatar.

"I think about the last World Cup for sure," he said. "To score at a World Cup would be a huge dream and I'm going to do everything for this dream. 

"I hope in this World Cup it will happen. I am glad for everything I have achieved and these memories for the World Cup, so now is the time to enjoy."

Poland's early exit in Russia was nothing new. They have qualified for three of the past five editions but have failed to make it past the group stage since 1986.

 

That is in stark contrast to first opponents Mexico, who have progressed from their first-round group in each of their past eight finals appearances, last failing to do so in 1978.

Mexico have won their opening match in five of their past six World Cups, though their run of advancing is under threat in a group that also includes Argentina and Saudi Arabia.

Head coach Gerardo Martino is under pressure due to some underwhelming results and performances this year, so much so he has labelled himself "public enemy number one".

"I see people happy a colleague loses or does poorly at work," he added in a fiery news conference in September. "I notice an environment that feels comfortable with this.

"The great concern is what impact this has on the group of players. Every time they have to go out to defend the coach, and in itself it is difficult to be a player."

Mexico's warm-up friendlies culminated in a 2-1 loss to Sweden, with that their third loss in five matches, while Poland have won back-to-back matches without conceding.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mexico - Hirving Lozano

No team kept more clean sheets during the third round of CONCACAF qualifying than Mexico (eight), but putting the ball in the net has proved to be more of a problem.

With Raul Jimenez struggling for fitness, having played just three Premier League games for Wolves all season, there is even more onus on Lozano up top.

The Napoli forward is enjoying a good season at club level and already has proven World Cup pedigree, having made a name for himself with his strike against Germany in 2018. 

Poland - Robert Lewandowski

It required more than just Lewandowski's goals alone for Poland to qualify, but there is no denying they need their star performer to be on top form if they are to make an impact.

Lewandowski has made a good start at new club Barcelona, with his 18 goals bettered only by Erling Haaland (23) and Kylian Mbappe (19) across Europe's top five leagues.

Worryingly for Poland, though, their most recent open-play goal at the World Cup came 20 years ago, with each of the past five coming via set-pieces.

PREDICTION

This match at Stadium 974 could go a long way to determining which side joins many people's favourites Argentina in the last 16.

Mexico are ranked 13 places higher than Mexico in the latest FIFA rankings, though our supercomputer prediction model can barely separate the sides.

Poland have a 35 per cent chance of winning, compared to 35.1 per cent for Mexico, with the draw predicted at a 29.2 per cent likelihood.

New Wolves head coach Julen Lopetegui is "worried" after Raul Jimenez was named in Mexico's World Cup squad despite not playing since August.

Former Sevilla and Real Madrid coach Lopetegui officially took charge at Wolves on Monday but will have to wait until after the World Cup break for his first game.

Jimenez has only made three Premier League appearances this season, totalling 211 minutes, after battling with a groin injury but was still included in Mexico's 26-man list to travel to Qatar.

With Wolves four points adrift of safety at the bottom of the top-flight table, Lopetegui says his primary concern is having his key forward to call upon after the break.

"The most important thing is not the World Cup, it's Wolves," Lopetegui said during his first press conference in England.

"I have spoken with Raul, I am worried about him because he doesn't play a minute with his team, Wolves.

"We need all of them but we need Raul fit and the best version. I hope he will come back here in this way. I respect the decision of the player and the coach but above all for me it's Wolves."

Mexico and Wolves have already endured a fractured relationship, with Gerardo Martino's team apologising after naming an unfit Jimenez on their bench for Wednesday's 4-0 friendly victory over Iraq.

The 31-year-old was in attendance at Molineux for the 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal on Saturday before being announced in a Mexico squad that includes Napoli's Hirving Lozano and Ajax defender Edson Alvarez.

But there was no room for former Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez, who scored 18 goals in 34 MLS appearances for Los Angeles Galaxy in 2022.

Gerardo Martino's men start their World Cup campaign against Poland on November 22 before facing Argentina and Saudi Arabia in Group C.

Mexico squad in full:

Guillermo Ochoa (Club America), Alfredo Talavera (Juarez), Rodolfo Cota (Leon); Jorge Sanchez (Ajax), Kevin Alvarez (Pachuca), Nestor Araujo (Club America), Johan Vasquez (Cremonese), Hector Moreno (Monterrey), Cesar Montes (Monterrey), Gerardo Arteaga (Genk), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey); Andres Guardado (Real Betis), Hector Herrera (Houston Dynamo), Charly Rodriguez (Cruz Azul), Erick Gutierrez (PSV), Luis Chavez (Pachuca), Edson Alvarez (Ajax), Orbelin Pineda (AEK Athens), Luis Romo (Monterrey); Alexis Vega (Guadalajara), Hirving Lozano (Napoli), Raul Jimenez (Wolves), Roberto Alvarado (Guadalajara), Uriel Antuna (Cruz Azul), Henry Martin (Club America), Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey).

Mexico coach Tata Martino has ruled out the possibility of a World Cup recall for veteran striker Javier Hernandez.

Hernandez, who has scored 52 goals in his 109 caps for El Tri, has not featured for his country since 2019.

However, 15 goals in 29 MLS games for the LA Galaxy this season had prompted discussion of a return to the Mexico squad prior to Martino's latest comments.

Ahead of his side's friendly with Peru, Martino explained: "We are simply going with other forwards.

"We will try to choose the 26 players who are closest to our game."

Hernandez, 34, finds himself down the pecking order for El Tri, with Raul Jimenez, Rogelio Funes Mori, Henry Martin and Santiago Gimenez all preferred up front. 

Speaking in greater depth about his attacking options, coach Martino stated three of these four would make up his striking options in Qatar.

And with Jimenez and Funes Mori injured and not expected to feature against Peru, the chance on Sunday will fall to Martin and Gimenez to stake their claim.

"We have two [forwards] who can play and two who can't," Martino stated. "Four forwards are not going to go [to Qatar], but as long as they make it difficult for me to choose, I'm very happy about that.

"Surely there will be talk of who is left out, but the problem will be abundance and not scarcity."

Mexico start their tough World Cup campaign on November 22 against Poland, with games against Argentina and Saudi Arabia to follow.

Page 1 of 2
© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.