Lionel Messi leads the cast again as Argentina attempt to go one further than their runners-up slot four years ago but they are beset by problems
The controversy caused by the Argentine Football Association’s decision to cancel a pre-World Cup friendly against Israel in Jerusalem overshadowed the national team’s preparations for Russia 2018.
The political fallout was huge with the row carrying over to the very top levels of government.
But the nixing of the game also meant that Argentina’s only meaningful warm-up game for the tournament would be a ridiculously straightforward hammering of Haiti in Buenos Aires.
Jorge Sampaoli is only 11 games into his tenure as national team manager and badly needed another 90 minutes for his players and systems to be tested.
His football is complex and demands total adherence. It brings results as evidenced by his 2015 Copa America triumph for Chile. But Argentina simply haven’t had the time to get things together properly under Sampaoli.
The former Sevilla boss jumped in during the qualification phase to replace Edgardo Bauza in order to realign their World Cup ambitions. He got them to Russia – just – but it hasn’t been a serene start.
Argentina needed a hat-trick from Lionel Messi against Ecuador in the final round of CONMEBOL qualification, which said less about coherence and strategy in the Argentina ranks than it did about their near total reliance on the Barcelona man.
That game represents the only competitive win Sampaoli has on his Argentina record, with three straight draws preceding that result threatening to rule the two-time winners out of the final tournament altogether.
How tragic things might have been had Messi not gone back on his decision to quit the national team following a Copa America final defeat to Chile two years ago. Since November 2016, Messi is the only Argentine player with a competitive goal to his name.
With Messi, Argentina occasionally appear a team capable of punching their weight on the world stage. Without him they would sink.
“We always say how Argentina is wonder team, but as I look at them you have Messi up front, but what about midfield and defense?” asked Robert Prosinecki, the former Croatia international now coaching Bosnia – Herzegovina on Vecernji last week. “There are worn out players! Croatia has big chance to win the group and avoid France in round of 16, because France is one of favourites to win the title.”
There is a massive gap in quality between Messi and his team-mates, even if Sampaoli has some good forwards at his disposal this time around.
The problem is getting them all fit and functioning in the same team. Any manager in the world might appreciate the conundrum of fitting Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala in the same XI but stylistic differences mean Sampaoli is yet to hit the winning formula. Injuries to Aguero and Dybala haven’t helped and the young Juventus forward is also hamstrung by the fact that he and Messi seem incompatible.
Injuries have also cost Sampaoli the services of his first-choice goalkeeper – Sergio Romero of Manchester United – and West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini. Enzo Perez – now of River Plate replaced Lanzini in the squad and there are still question marks over who will get the gloves. Franco Armani is a fan favourite while Willy Cabellero of Chelsea is also in contention.
He will have to do better than he did in the Messi-less March friendly against Spain if he is to get the nod however. He conceded five goals on a night which left exposed all the frailties, weaknesses and problems apparent in the Argentine ranks just weeks out from the World Cup proper.
The enduring memory of that night is Messi taking leave of his seat in the stadium by the time Spain had scored their sixth.
Meanwhile, casual fans will recognise Nicolas Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Javier Mascherano and Angel Di Maria but wonder who on earth some of the other faces in the squad are.
Names like Maximiliano Meza and Nicolas Tagliafico will be unfamiliar to observers who have watched Argentina go deep in tournaments like the Copa America as well as the World Cup in 2014.
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Argentina this time simply cannot count on the same kind of player that has gone before however and Sampaoli will have to learn a lot from his team when they take to the field at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow on Saturday against Iceland.
On name alone, Argentina should have been overwhelming favourites to top the group and go deep into the tournament. But Iceland and Croatia should be underestimated at Argentina’s peril. There are no guarantees against Nigeria either, against whom Argentina lost 4-2 in a pre-tournament friendly a few months ago.
It all means that Argentina arrive in Russia with big problems. They faced accusations of being a one-man team four years ago in Brazil but it’s nothing compared to the plight of the team currently. Messi is going to have to drag his side along if they have any chance of decent progress.