World Cup 2018: Argentina Preview
The South American giants head to Russia for their 12th consecutive World Cup appearance – can La Seleccion put the 2014 final defeat behind them?
A name synonymous with international football.
Argentina will head to Russia for their 12th straight appearance on the grandest stage of all, and the two-time winners will look to banish the painful memories of defeat in the 2014 final.
In a squad teeming with superstars, household names, the Argentinians are familiar with entering a summer tournament under pressure as one of the outside favourites.
After limping through qualification, the South American nation will hope to hit top form in time for June’s fiesta… but can they go all the way?
Route to Russia
Argentina take part in South America’s qualifying region, governed by CONMEBOL.
Alongside fellow continental giants Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Colombia, the route for World Cup qualification is simple: finish in the top four of a ten-team league.
In a campaign which spans over two years, teams in the region compete against each other in home-and-away ties.
Joining the five ‘bigger’ names in the single-stage campaign are Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.
CONMEBOL runs their qualifying campaign in blocks of two games (usually one home and one away), until each side has completed their necessary 18 fixtures.
Argentina’s campaign got off to a sluggish start.
A shock 0-2 home defeat to Ecuador in the opening fixture was a sign of things to come, as Argentina fell massively short of their potential. Only two points came from their next two fixtures as they found themselves with early ground to make up on their rivals.
Three straight victories, including impressive away wins at Colombia and Chile, got things back on track as the qualifying campaign made way for 2016’s Copa America.
An impressive run saw another appearance in the final, but it was déjà vu for Lionel Messi and company.
Chile were once again victorious over the Argentinians, once again on penalties.
The defeat prompted talisman Messi to announce his resignation from international football – the fallout from the defeat too upsetting to handle.
He soon reversed his decision, however – much to the relief of fans worldwide – and scored the only goal in the win over Uruguay in Argentina’s first post-tournament outing.
The wheels, though, then came off Argentina’s campaign as they failed to win a single one of the next four games. Two draws and two defeats left their hopes in an unusually nervy state.
So close was South America’s single stage that only one team, Brazil, had mathematically secured qualification before the final round of fixtures.
Argentina began the day in sixth position, and in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970.
A Messi-inspired Seleccion, though, came from behind to secure third spot and an automatic path to Russia as Chile missed out entirely and Peru were pushed into a playoff spot.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli named his final 23-man squad a few weeks before the tournament. In an attacking sense, there were few surprises.
Here’s how the Argentinian’s may line up for their first group game against Iceland:
For a team bursting with attacking talent and options, getting the right balance has always been an issue for Argentina.
At the other end of the pitch, they have been notoriously frail – often relying on outscoring the opposition.
Key Player – Lionel Messi
Not that there is any real need to point this out, but Lionel Messi will once again have the weight of the world on his shoulders as he sets out to win the one trophy which has eluded him.
A World Cup win to add to Messi’s collection would the cherry put onto the icing of the cake that has been his career.
Messi is top of Argentina’s all-time goal scoring charts with 64 and will hope to add a few more to his tally this summer.
Currently, 19 caps behind all-time leader Javier Mascherano (and the retired Javier Zanetti), it is unlikely Messi will eclipse this with the former still a part of national team plans.
Group Stage matchups
On paper, Argentina can count themselves rather fortunate after being drawn into a relatively straight-forward-looking group.
Nothing is for certain, but Jorge Sampaoli will fancy his chances to put a run together.
A game with Iceland, who will be out to prove they’re not just in Russia to make up the numbers, awaits Argentina on the first Saturday of the tournament.
The Icelanders will be eager to make a mark on the world stage after an impressive Euro 2016 run.
Reuters/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI
A potentially tricky matchup against Croatia is the penultimate game, with Group D wrapping up on June 26th when Argentina face Nigeria.
Playing a Croatia side that, on their day, can cause any team problems will be no easy task. It’s a game that, on paper, Argentina should win comfortably, but the defence will be all too aware of the creative power of midfield maestros, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
On the final day, Nigeria will be hope to repeat the surprise win over Argentina from back in November – the Messi-less side was beaten 4-2 in Moscow.
The two sides were also drawn together in the group stages of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a topsy-turvy affair, Argentina ran out eventual 3-2 winners.
Judging how far Argentina will go in a World Cup is no easy task.
A team which boasts arguably both the world’s best player and overall strength in attacking depth should win games a lot more convincingly than they do.
The group they’ve been drawn into should favour them: Iceland are first-timers, while Croatia’s squad is aging, albeit still dangerous. Nigeria will take confidence from the fact they’ve recently beaten them, as well as coming close to stealing a draw in 2014.
Reuters/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI
It’s a group that Argentina should progress from, and comfortably.
Should proceedings go to plan, Argentina would face either Peru, Denmark or Australia (provided France top their group) in the round of 16.
The quarter-finals could provide a mouth-watering clash with Spain, should they also win their group and subsequent first-round knockout game.
From that point, it’s anyone’s guess.
Overall, the group and initial route to the later stages of the competition look navigable for an Argentina side which boasts a high level of experience to match their obvious individual talents.
If they can click, if Messi can fire, then we may well see Argentina reach a second successive final.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.