It’s now or never for Argentina and Lionel Messi.
Having dragged his country to three consecutive finals, the Barcelona genius arrived in Russia for one last crack at the trophy that has always tormented him.
Laughable as it may seem, the 30-year-old will never enjoy the status afforded to Diego Maradona if he fails to secure his country’s first major honour since the Copa America 25 years ago.
But, with Argentina stuttering to a 1-1 draw with perennial spanners in the works Iceland, questions are now being asked whether or not they can even make it out of the group.
Most commentators don’t rate Los Albiceleste’s chances.
They point to a shambolic goalkeeping situation with Jorge Sampaoli’s first-choice stopper out injured despite barely featuring for his club in the past twelve months. Sergio Romero’s loss will be Franco Armani’s gain. Or will it be Nahuel Guzman’s? Or Willy Caballero’s? Nobody, Samapoli included, quite seems to know.
The defence, too, is a blotch on the legacies of Daniel Passarella and Walter Samuel. Nicolas Otamendi is a neurotic presence in the centre but he is more obdurate than former Tottenham flop Federico Fazio.
Picking themselves up
This Argentina team, however, know what it is to gather themselves from the dirt.
A shocking time in qualifying had seen them come within a whisker of missing out of the tournament altogether, only for a last-gasp rally against Ecuador to send them bundling onto the plane.
Sampaoli, too, has proven himself at this level. In 2015, he took Chile to the Copa America title, managing the expectations of that country’s ‘golden generation’ to deliver a pulsating winning style. Uruguay, Peru and his current employers were all overcome on the way to a historic title.
That the team have continued to reach finals despite the shambolic management of the Argentine Football Association’s is indicative of its character.
Riddled with ineptitude after the horrific reign of Julio Grondona, the AFA has botched its way through presidential elections and fraud charges whilst the team has produced regardless.
For all their grit and determination, however, Argentina’s most potent weapon remains their sparking number ten.
All of his country’s play is refracted through him; he top-scored in the CONMEBOL rounds, despite featuring in barely half of the fixtures. Against Ecuador, it was his hat-trick which prompted Los Albicelestes’ last-gasp redemption.
Against Iceland, though, he looked jaded, perhaps feeling the weight of expectation on his shoulder and attempting, as a result, to play messiah for his side.
That said, Messi’s gluttonous talents make it tempting to overlook the rest of Sampaoli’s squad. In Gonzalo Higuain, Kun Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Angel di Maria, however, he can call upon the tournament’s strongest forward line.
All four have years of elite-level experience behind them. All four – with the slight exception of Aguero - have lingering points to prove at international level. If Sampaoli can corral their talents to the team objective, no defence will be able to stop them.
Whichever way it is spun, Argentina’s route to the final looks challenging.
To win the trophy, they will be compelled to beat one or more of Brazil, Germany and Spain in the knockout rounds. Their current form might make that implausible on paper but their loaded front line is unmatched by any of those opponents.
Tite is embarking on his maiden international tournament, hoping to extract the maximum from a middling squad with the spectre of an impatient nation on his back. Spain, meanwhile, have been thrown into chaos by the sacking of Julen Lopetegui.
Before the tournament, you might have said Die Mannschaft offer the most credible threat. However, with their shock loss against Mexico on Sunday, the Germans may, in fact, be the weak link here.
Sampaoli won’t have it easy. His nation, his press, and most of the world believe that the squad lacks the necessary ingredients for a first World Cup since 1986.
Only the myopic, however, would write this team off. This is Messi, and this is Argentina.
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