With Argentina’s Group D opener with Iceland fast approaching, Jorge Sampaoli’s men are putting the finishing touches on their far from ideal preparation for the big kick-off. As La Albiceleste look to secure their third world crown, we take a look at some strengths and weakness affecting the group looking to do exactly that.
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Despite the huge distance between Argentina and Russia, and the relatively poor economical state back home, Argentine fans have once again demonstrated their love of the national team, with over 20,000 supporters expected to travel to the tournament, making La Selección one of the best supported teams at the World Cup.
Calling on such huge support, which will see those in light blue have the majority backing in most of their outings, is a huge psychological advantage and if 2014 in Brazil is anything to go by, could help create real momentum and a sense of unity.
All-improved Nicolas Otamendi:
Manchester City centre-back Nicolas Otamendi didn’t even make it into Argentina’s 23 man squad in 2014 but four years later he’s an unquestionable inclusion and one of the team’s key figures.
Under Pep Guardiola’s watch, Otamendi has improved unbelievable amounts and is now undoubtedly one of the game’s finest defenders. Physically dominant, defensively smart and with the ability to play out from the back, Otamendi suits Sampaoli’s system to a tee and improves Argentina’s chances ten-fold.
No matter your problems or the opponent, it’s fairly apparent that when you have Lionel Messi in your ranks, there’s always hope. Messi is the heartbeat of the Argentina team and whilst they need him to be at the very peak of his powers to have any hope, if he does manage to perform to his usual standards, that’s exactly what they’ll have.
Fresh off yet another fantastic club season, in which he rattled home 45 goals, Messi arrives in great condition and in confident mood. Having inspired Argentina to qualification, almost single handedly, the 5 time Ballon d’Or winner has rubished the notion that he is ineffective at international level and will be looking to put said myth to bed once and for all by leading the team to glory.
On international performances alone, one could argue that the forward line is actually one of Argentina’s weaknesses, but if those selected finally manage to perform as they do for the clubs week in, week out, then there can be little doubting Argentina have the most potent group of strikers off all nations jetting off to Russia.
In addition to Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala make up a group of strikers most countries could only dream of. Higuain is normally a reliable performer up until the final of competitions and already has 5 World Cup goals to his name, whilst Aguero and Dybala will be desperate to finally make their mark upon the biggest stage, after years of goal scoring exploits in English and Italian football respectively.
Having qualified in far from convincing manner and having not had long to work with Sampaoli, good preparation prior to the World Cup beginning was vital but unsurprisingly to regular viewers of Argentine football, is something the AFA simply haven’t provided.
Putting commercial gain above the good of the team, the organisation bizarrely looked to send the team to Israel last weekend for a friendly against the manager and players’ wishes, only for it to later be postponed given the ongoing situation in the country.
That leaves Argentina having only played one game prior to the group opener, a low intensity home friendly win over Haiti and if they do make a slow start to their quest, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
Unsettled Starting Line-Up:
Tying in nicely with the above, having played so few games under Sampaoli, there’s questions to be asked in all areas of the pitch and the lack of established starters in key areas has to be a huge worry.
In goal, regular number one Sergio Romero’s injury has left a place up for grabs, that either Willy Caballero or the uncapped Franco Armani will grab whilst Otamendi’s centre back partner is still undecided, as is who will start at right back between Eduardo Salvio and Gabriel Mercado.
Manuel Lanzini’s injury withdrawal has generated a headache in the attacking strand, with it also yet to be decided which of domestic-based duo Maxi Meza and Cristian Pavon will line-up against Iceland whilst the biggest debate of all surrounds around the starting striker, leaving uncertainty all over the pitch that other nations simply do not have.
Weight of the Lost Finals Curse:
Mentally, there is a feeling of failure already ingrained in a significant portion of the squad and Russia 2018 certainly feels like last chance saloon for a generation of players. Having lost 7 finals in a row, 3 of which in recent years, there’s a clear and apparent psychological barrier hanging over the players and is something that is difficult to shake off.
Given how often these Argentina players have crumbled on the brink of eternal glory, there’s very little faith in the team back home and that could well see pressure applied early on in the competition if performances aren’t strong, meaning the camp will have to ignore outside factors if they are to keep confidence levels high.
As good as he is, Argentina simply cannot rely on Messi solely, as they did in qualification. Whilst he is undoubtedly the king piece, other players have to step up and be counted for, something that’s rarely happened over the last few years.
On the road to Russia, Argentina picked up an average of 2.1 points a game with the Barcelona man in their ranks but looked totally lost without him, claiming just 0.875 points a game over the 6 fixtures he missed.
Try as he might, Messi cannot humanly be expected to start, create and finish attacks and if the other talented players in the squad cannot lift some of the weight off of Messi’s back, it’s hard to envisage the trophy heading back to Buenos Aires come July.
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