It is that time of the year when your club honours, individual trophies and personal records don't mean anything. It is the biggest stage of international football and the only thing that matters is where you will end up on the road to ultimate glory. The trophy that has evaded demigods and superhumans (read Messi and Ronaldo) sits in Russia, waiting to be claimed.
Here we analyse if one of them can finally get their hands on the ultimate prize.
The story so far
Argentina qualified through the CONMEBOL qualifiers on the last matchday after Lionel put 3 past Ecuador in a must-win game. To put this into perspective, Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa is a fortress for Ecuador, a stadium where they had remained undefeated during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers campaign.
The stadium is at an altitude of about 2800 meters. To play for 90 minutes at such an altitude and beat the resilient hosts is no easy task. But a team of Argentina's calibre should have booked their tickets to Russia way before the last matchday and we would not even be talking about the fortress at Quito.
The talisman Leo Messi had missed quite a few games due to injuries and suspension. Argentina could manage a meagre 7 points out of a possible 24 in his absence. With Leo, Argentina had 21 points out of 30. This says a lot about how much the team depends on Messi.
After all the struggle, they managed to qualify with 28 points, 13 points below Brazil and just two above Chile, who failed to qualify. It's not a surprise that the top scorer for Argentina was Messi with 7 goals. The frontline of Aguero, Icardi, Higuain, Benedetto, Pratto and Alario managed a total of 3 goals between themselves in the entire campaign.
Post Bauza era
The Argentinian team under Bauza was in total shambles. There was no structure in the team, no unity, no plan B, no signs of "tactical masterclasses". The AFA was a chaos too, around that time. There have been rumours that Bauza was chosen as the manager only because he was willing to take massive pay cuts and the bankrupt FA could not afford the Sampaolis and the Simeones.
Sampaoli was handed a rather tough task of making a unit out of these broken pieces and it appears that he has not done a good job with it. Not yet at least. Sampaoli has been experimenting a lot. He's tried a 3 man defence (in a friendly vs Nigeria), a 4 man attack (in a friendly vs Singapore), tested Di Maria on the right and so on. In the four competitive games under Sampaoli, Argentina have drawn 3 and won 1. The team still seemed to lack a proper structure but there is still a glimmer of hope as he builds the team around Messi.
However true it is that Sampaoli has not really worked his magic yet, there is all hope for optimism, given what he's achieved with Chile. Not much can be said about Sampaoli's Argentina yet, but he built a sustainable Chile squad which not only won the Copa America under him in 2015 but also win the Centenario in 2016 under Pizzi. Sevilla came 4th in the league under him and had a season worth mentioning.
Sampaoli has shown that he's not here to jot down big names and take them to Russia but rather build a team around Leo which will allow him to unleash his genius to the maximum potential.
The constant dropping of Dybala, the omission of Icardi and the inclusion of players like Cristian Pavon, Meza and Lanzini is an example of how he's not shying away from dropping big names. Icardi's omission has raised a lot of eyebrows and rightly so, given that he had a tremendous season with Inter.
However, for all the negativity Higuain has received due to his dismal shows in the finals Argentina has been a part of in the past 4 years, he remains to be the more experienced player, with a better eye for goal and a knack of creating space for Lionel by pulling defenders with him.
How will they line up?
With a lack of world-class players and abundance of players who can fall under the category between above average and world class, it is really hard to predict Argentina's starting XI. However, if one thinks the way Sampaoli does and looks at the options available, this is probably how Argentina will be lining up.
The question as to who will start in goal still lingers after Romero's untimely injury. Armani and Guzman are other options but Cabellaro has been chosen here based on seniority, experience.
Nicolas Otamendi had an incredible season with Manchester City and will be joining the camp in high spirits. He was chosen in the PFA premier league team of the year and will definitely be the key to Argentina's defensive performances. Spending two years under Pep has surely had a positive impact on his reading of the game too.
He can be the captain without the armband that every defence needs. His aerial threat in the opposition will also be a huge bonus for Argentina. Federico Fazio will be partnering Otamendi in defence. From suffocating Messi in his pockets to sprinting frivolously while watching Salah and co. tear his team apart, the Roma defender has seen it all in the past few months. However, he will be starting at CB in all likeliness as Sampaoli looks to promote Mascherano to midfield.
The wingbacks are probably the weakest links in the team. Of Mercado, Bustos, Tagialfico, Rojo, none are convincing to enough to be named in the team that will be winning the world cup.
The midfield can be both, the key to success or the recipe for failure, for Argentina. Sampaoli will be playing Mascherano and Banega as double pivots. The former will be defensively burdened to fall into defence to form a 3 man defence when the wingbacks get into attacking positions and the latter will be in charge of threading passes across defensive lines when Messi gets into scoring positions.
Lo Celso and Biglia deserve a mention here. The PSG midfielder has shown signs of making a case for himself to feature in the starting lineup and will definitely be making substitute appearances as you can't expect both Banega and Mascherano to be playing full games in full intensity at their age.
The attack is ironically Argentina's biggest strength. The irony stems from the fact that despite boasting of big names, Argentina could only manage 19 goals in their 18 qualifier games. 7 of these came from one player who played only 10 of those 18 games. However, with players like Di Maria, Messi, Higuain, Aguero, Dybala, Pavon, Lanzini, you just can't write them off.
Di Maria was dismal, to say the least throughout the qualifiers. But he was a crucial player in the 2014 World Cup and his absence was noticeable in the final. Sampaoli finds it hard to accommodate Dybala in the starting lineup as his play is so similar to that of Messi that it will be resulting in both the players getting in each other's way.
There is hope, however, if he does find a way to integrate these superstars in the same lineup, given Messi's versatility. You can expect Messi to play at CAM, like he's been doing for a while now for both Barcelona and Argentina. The creative burden adds to the scoring burden on Lionel Messi.
Higuain and Pavon will have to do their best to relieve him of major chunks of this. Messi's link-up with these two will prove to be really crucial for Argentina. In a team sport, link up is definitely one of the most important factors and these two players will be key to bringing the best out of Messi.
Key to success?
So what is the source for this newfound optimism about Argentina's chances at the World Cup? Apart from the obvious (i.e presence of Leo Messi), we look at a few things which should work out in Argentina's favour and if extrapolated, can also win them the World Cup.
Building the team around Messi
This can not be stressed upon enough. The Bauzan era Argentina had 10 individuals and Messi. Messi at 100 percent can only do so much when the other players perform like Sunday league players. But put those same players in a team around Messi where he is given the freedom to drop deep and create like he's been doing for Barcelona, there is some hope.
The only catch here is that this system fails with Messi. If a team manages to stop Messi, the system fails. Unlike Bauza, Sampaoli should be having a plan B. But gambling your entire tournament on one man, makes sense only if that man is Leo Messi. Given the state of things, this gamble will probably be one of Argentina's biggest strengths.
A bench consisting of players like Aguero and Dybala? Add to that the South American players like Benedetto who can come late on with a knack to make an impact. Argentina's bench is massively overpowered and can provide a lot of options if plan A doesn't work. The midfield has options like Lo Celso and Biglias. Bustos and Rojo can fill in for the fullbacks. The bench is strong and will play a major role in Argentina's campaign.
Argentina are placed in a rather tricky group, with Croatia, Nigeria and giant killers Iceland. There is no group of death in this World Cup. But if one has to talk about a group where it won't be surprising to see any of the 4 teams qualifying, it has to be group D. And should
With all 3 departments tested to a good extent in the group stages, Argentina will be oozing with confidence, should they make it out of the group winning all three and convincingly. Whereas most of the other teams have probably one tough game and two easy games.
3 Runner-up medals in the last 4 years
This is a rather psychological point to make than a logical one. With 3 defeats in 3 finals in the last 4 years, the "chokers'' will go out there mentally ready to prove a point. The criticism the team has received over the past few months about how it is overly reliant on Messi, however true has planted a seed in the other players.
Whether it is a seed of doubt or fire, is for the players to decide. The players can make this their biggest strength or biggest weakness. If they are to win the World Cup, they will have to use this fire to burn the whole place down as they rally alongside their talisman to finally achieve what has eluded them for long.
Lionel Andres Messi
Messi just had one of his best seasons at Barcelona, if not the best. His vision has now peaked, the dribbling is still at the top, he's starting to press higher and harder. He's dropping deep and carrying the dead midfield (true for both Argentina and Barcelona). After breaking a few free-kick related records this season, it's safe to say that his freekick technique is now better than it has ever been.
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This Argentina side can be a great threat on set pieces, more than what people are expecting from them. Messi recently voiced a positive comment on Pavon and his reading of the game. He has finally found a player with who he can connect well. And with Leo surrounded by players he is comfortable with, in a system around him one can expect him to create havoc against any kind of opposition. Lionel Messi will have to play the best month of his life and if he does, the dream is not as far fetched as people are making it sound.
Tell me that Argentina crashed out in the group stage and I'll believe you, look at their team. Tell me that Argentina won the World Cup and I'll believe you, they have Messi. It all comes down to that little man again. He can under-perform and watch the system built around him fail. He can come out of it, with a trophy in his hand, should his teammates fight by his side. Nothing can be ruled out now.