Argentina may be two-time winners and 2014’s runners-up, but all the focus will be on Lionel Messi. The diminutive wizard will turn 31 two days before the Albiceleste’s final group game, so Russia is thought to be Messi’s last great chance of World Cup triumph.
They were so close last time around, losing out to a 113th-minute Mario Götze strike in the final. It was the second time that Argentina had lost to Germans in the World Cup final, losing 1-0 (again) to West Germany in 1990.
They were also runners-up in the very first edition in 1930, and the nation of nearly 45 million will be hoping that their destiny isn’t to be bridesmaids once again.
Road to the World Cup
Their journey to Russia was far from smooth. With two games of qualifying to go they were fifth in the CONMEBOL standings, with only the top four guaranteed to go to Russia.
They cycled through three different managers in their campaign. Tata Martino left in July 2016 after losing two consecutive Copa America finals to Chile on penalties but having gained 11 out of 18 possible points in World Cup qualifying.
Edgardo Bauza was next, but lasted only eight months, leaving in April 2017 after a 2-0 defeat to Bolivia and winning only three of his eight qualification matches. Things didn’t pick up immediately under current manager Jorge Sampaoli either, drawing three games in a row to Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru.
Those draws meant that they failed to beat Venezuela, who came dead bottom of CONMEBOL, and only picked up three points in four games against Peru and Paraguay. In the end, they were fortunate that Peru, Colombia and Chile finished the campaign poorly, otherwise Argentina could well have missed out.
That sets the scene for their current predicament. Sampaoli’s side lost 4-2 to Nigeria last November and were thrashed by Spain 6-1 in March, and there still seems to be a large amount of disarray about the team.
Argentinian journalist Claudio Mauri told World Soccer that “without [Messi] we’d be watching the World Cup on TV.” Far be it from Messi dragging the nation to a World Cup victory, it took enough of his energy to drag them to the tournament in the first place.
Up until the defeat to Nigeria, Sampaoli lined his Argentina side up in a 3-3-3-1, but since then he’s switched to a more conventional 4-2-3-1. The big question is what system can help Messi put in the best performances possible, whether that’s through making him the focal point or allowing him to pitch in when needed.
“Sampoli is viewed with mistrust,” Mauri says. “His year in charge has been full of doubts and changes.”
Argentinian journalist and author Sergio Levinsky chimes in with a similar view. “It is still not clear if the team is going to defend with a back three or a back four,” he said in the latest issue of World Soccer.
“We’re playing Russian roulette.”
Sampaoli has had little time to decide on a style of play and, due to the chopping and changing, even less time to get the system and its requirements drilled into his players.
The wealth of talents that Argentina have at their disposal is arguably even a hindrance. Sampaoli has said that “precisely because we’ve had so little time to work together we’ve had to dedicate a big part of every friendly to observing different players.”
Paulo Dybala will be in the squad but whether he will play in Russia is uncertain, as he doesn’t seem to fit into the role Sampaoli would like him to play.
The coach would no doubt like his side to play with a high press out of possession, but that all depends on whether it can come together in time. In attack, expect Argentina to do whatever helps Messi play at his best. But Sampaoli’s side could be making it up as they go along in Russia.
It says something that Argentina’s leading assist-maker in qualifying was a combination of players on just two – Gonzalo Higuaín, Lionel Messi, and Ángel Di María. After Messi (7), their leading goal-scorers all had two goals as well – Di Maria again and right-back Gabriel Mercado.
Only scraping through qualifying may have come as a surprise based on some of the performances. They took the second most shots (13.11 per game) and conceded the second fewest (9.27) of all South American teams during qualifying, behind Brazil on both fronts.
It was a similar case in terms of big chances too: they created 1.38 per game, level with Brazil, and conceded 0.5 per game, second only to the Brazilians again. Tactically, they might still be making their mind up, but Argentina are still a good side.
Star player: Lionel Messi
What is there to say about Lionel Messi that hasn’t been said before?
He’s scored just over a goal every two games in an Argentina shirt, his hat-trick against Haiti at the end of May taking him to 64 in 124 appearances. It’s a phenomenal record but compared to his 552 in 637 for Barcelona in all competitions, it seems fairly tame.
This is why the expectation is so high for Messi. As one of the greatest players in the world and of all time, it’s no wonder that people won’t settle for anything less than him taking every game by the scruff of the neck and powering Argentina to victory.
It’s exactly what he did in Brazil in 2014. Without his four goals in the group stages, they would have finished level with Iran on two points, crashing out of the competition below Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the everlasting fight between him and Cristiano Ronaldo, this is realistically the last chance either will get at a chance to secure World Cup glory. Without it, the common narrative will suggest that they fall just short of Pelé and Diego Maradona in the pantheon of the world’s elite.
That narrative is unfair, but it won’t stop all eyes being on Messi this summer.
Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
The Argentine’s playing career was cut short aged 19 because of an injury to his tibia and fibula, and he spent much of his coaching days in South America.
Spells in Peru, Ecuador and Chile led to three league titles and a Copa Sudamericana with Universidad de Chile. That in turn led to taking over the Chilean national team from 2012 to 2016.
He took the team to the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, going out on penalties to the hosts Brazil, and the following year won the 2015 Copa America.
He cut short a two-year contract managing Sevilla – his first foray outside South America – to take the reigns of his home country.
A coach in the lineage of fellow Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa, he likes an intense, high-pressing game, but time pressures may mean that the Albiceleste play a less intense game than he would ideally like to in Russia.
Given that they finished second in 2014, the expectations will be that Argentina reach the later stages of the tournament at the very least.
They should top their group, although Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria are a group that could provide upsets. If they do, they could face Spain in the quarter-finals and Germany in the semis.
Going out that early might feel like a disappointment to Argentina, but realistically that might be their level.