World Cup 2018: A comprehensive look at Group D
Group D of the world cup consists of former winners and last year's runners-up Argentina from CONMEBOL, Iceland, and Croatia as part of the European contingent and finally, Argentina's inseparable mates Nigeria from Africa.
This could qualify as a group of death at the world cup, considering just how unpredictable the teams are. Argentina is not in the best of forms, Croatia is Croatia, Iceland are a roller-coaster ride that only goes up and Nigeria can never be written off.
Most likely to go through to the RO16: Argentina, Croatia. Unless you're Jose Mourinho, in which case it is Argentina and Nigeria.
If 4 years ago, someone had told you that Argentina would struggle to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and it would require Messi grabbing them by the scruff of their necks on the last match day, you would have declared them crazy.
That is precisely what happened. Argentina qualified in third place from the CONMEBOL qualifiers, way behind Brazil and 3 points behind Uruguay in second place. It took a hat-trick from the little magician on the last day to secure qualification for La Albiceleste, who for some reason still place him below Maradona in terms of national hero status.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
After leading Chile to the 2015 Copa America, and a stint at Sevilla where he was praised for his high-press tactics, he took over the position of manager at Argentina in May 2017. His sole job was to salvage the dumpster fire that was Argentina's qualifying campaign and considering the time he had at hand, Sampaoli has done the best he can.
Sampaoli's tactics with the national team are here and there for the most part. Sometimes, it resembles his Sevilla team with his fast-paced type of football, and sometimes they pass the ball to Messi and hope for the best.
The goalkeeper's spot was locked down for Argentina with Sergio Romero, but an injury has ensured that he won't be part of the squad. In place of him will be Nahuel Guzman of Tigres as the third keeper.
Usually, Caballero will be the one starting but after a string of poor outings, culminating in a 1-6 defeat to Spain, most fans feel that it might be time for Armani to start in goal. There is no clear decision between the two from Sampaoli's camp, so we have to wait.
A back 4 like most teams will see Manchester City's Otamendi and Roma's Fazio play as CBs. The two will be coming off excellent seasons with their respective clubs, meaning that Marcus Rojo will have to settle for the bench.
Rojo plays as a left back for Argentina, and even in that position, he will be eclipsed by Ajax's Tagliafico. Tagliafico is a very dynamic attacker and clever defender and will be partnered by Mercado on the right wing.
Sampaoli is still not very sure about the formation, as he has gone from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, or at times to even a 3-5-2. The 4-2-3-1 is what is most likely to be played, with 2 of Banega, Biglia, Mascherano and Lo Celso taking up the role.
Despite being Argentina's most capped player, Mascarenho is not the player he was at Barcelona and his legs are shot. Banega and Lo Celso are the best pairing possible, as Banega has a very good work rate to go with his attacking talents.
This is Argentina's biggest weakness, as the midfield can be easily passed by teams that have the pace or have someone capable of delivering pinpoint passes from the back. It will be interesting to see how they cope against Croatia and their world-class midfield.
Messi, as usual, will play as the man behind the striker, with Di Maria on the left and Lanzini or Pavon on the other side of him. Pavon's chemistry with Messi during their friendlies was very evident and it might be the deciding factor in choosing the player on the right.
Where is Dybala, you ask? There is the problem. If Argentina want to play Dybala, they have to use him as a striker, where Aguero/Higuain are much better than him. The other option is to play him as another attacking midfielder alongside Messi behind the striker, but that exposes the flanks.
The answer is to use Dybala as a super-sub, with Messi moving to the right once Dybala comes in as the attacking central midfielder. There is the final question of whether to play Higuain or Aguero as the striker.
If the friendlies are anything to go by, Argentina work much (no exaggeration) with Aguero than they do with Higuain. No offense to Pipita, but even at Juventus he has had a relatively mellow season and it won't make too many heads turn if he is dropped from the starting XI.
Player to watch out for: Lionel Messi
After coming so close yet so far last tournament, this is Messi's chance to silence people back home who say his heart doesn't beat for Argentina as it does for Barcelona. Messi might even play the next edition, but why wait 4 more years?
Without any quantum of doubt, it will be his job to guide the team through. The world cup trophy is the one thing that is missing from that envious cabinet of his, and helping Argentina will also bring with it one more Ballon d'Or.
Despite being an excellent team on paper, the qualifiers took away a lot of hype surrounding the team. Maybe it was intentional all along.