AND so, it all comes down to this for Lionel Messi. In what will surely be his last World Cup, can the man that many already consider to be the greatest player of all time cement his legacy by leading Argentina to glory?

In the first tournament since the death of Diego Maradona, there is no doubt that football romantics will be willing Argentina’s number 10 to be holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy in a few weeks’ time, and FIFA may well be hoping he manages it too.

As a storyline, it would be a welcome antidote to the toxic air that has clung to this World Cup ever since it was awarded to the oil-rich peninsula, but at 35 years of age, does the little magician still have it in him to carry his team to glory?

Well, there is no doubting that the magic is still in his boots. But perhaps the more pertinent point to make is that he won’t actually have to carry this team in anything like the manner he did when dragging them to the final in Brazil back in 2014.

This Argentina squad has arguably the greatest strength in depth in a generation - or even two - and has a huge opportunity to go all the way as a result.

As well as the talismanic Messi, they have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call on, with Paulo Dybala, Julian Alvarez, Lautaro Martinez and Angel Di Maria a more than worthy supporting cast to the main man.

But Lionel Scaloni’s team have backbone too, and are defensively resolute. They went through their 17 qualifying matches unbeaten, conceding just eight goals, with Tottenham’s Christian Romero becoming a key figure in their backline.

They won the 2021 Copa America, and are just one match shy of surpassing Italy’s world record of going 37 matches unbeaten. So, with a stout platform behind their stellar attacking talent, it is little wonder that the bookies have them among the favourites to triumph.

Their group won’t be straightforward, mind you, even if they should top it. Mexico will prove difficult opponents, even if the CONCACAF side come into this tournament in indifferent form and with a coach in Tata Martinez who is under a little pressure.

The Mexicans have their own ageing hero to pin their hopes to, with 37-year-old goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa always seeming to excel for his country, but they no longer have anything like the attacking weapons they once did.

That being said, they should be favourites to progress from the group alongside the Argentinians, even with the challenge presented by Poland and Robert Lewandowski.

The Poles are a decent enough outfit overall, but with Lewandowski in attack, they also have the X-factor that might just enable them to pull off a shock or two and edge out the Mexicans.

Lewandowski of course is now the star man at Messi’s beloved Barcelona, and his club form since moving to the Camp Nou in the summer has been very good. He had a poor tournament by his lofty standards in Russia in 2018, failing to find the net in his three appearances,  and he will come into this World Cup with a point to prove.

At 34, the odds are that this will also be the last opportunity he has on this stage, so he will not only want to go out with a bang, but not go out until at least the knockout phase.

The perceived whipping boys of the section will of course be Saudi Arabia. If you delve into the big book of international manager’s cliches though, you will know that there are no easy games at this level any more, and indeed, the Saudis are no mugs.

They topped an AFC qualifying group ahead of Japan, beating Australia in the final game to seal their place at the tournament. So the big guns will have to be wary, even if they should have too much for the second-lowest ranked team in the competition. They are currently 51st in the world rankings, a full 11 places below Scotland.

It should be an entertaining section, even if anything other than an Argentinian procession on their march towards potential glory would be something of a surprise. The contest for second place though, could well be tasty.