There are no solid arguments to suggest Argentina can win this World Cup. They do not have the training levels of Spain, the structure of Germany or the blend of top-class individuals and team ethos harnessed by their bitter rivals, Brazil. But they do have Lionel Messi, and that in itself is a reason to believe nothing is impossible.
“If Leo is OK, the team will be more under his control than mine.” confessed the coach, Jorge Sampaoli. The most realistic objective would be progress to the quarter-finals; elimination any earlier would be frustrating, while anything beyond the last eight should be seen as a very positive performance. But no one in Argentina forgets the three lost finals in a row – the 2014 World Cup and the Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016 – and a team that suffers a worrying mental brittleness will be under plenty of pressure.
One of Argentina’s weaknesses lies in goal, a position that is now up for grabs after Sergio Romero was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury. Willy Caballero rarely featured at Chelsea last season and his deputies lack experience on this stage. In defence there is only one player of international, Nicolás Otamendi, and the performance of the entire back line has left a lot to be desired under Sampaoli. The coach has changed personnel and formations frequently, eventually settling on a conventional four-man defence. Gabriel Mercado, on the right, does not feel comfortable in that position and may be another achilles heel.
There are also plenty of questions to answer in the midfield, and Lucas Biglia’s injury – a double fracture of his lumbar vertebrae that casts doubt on his fitness going into the tournament – only adds to the uncertainty. A lack of leadership and initiative to take hold of the ball and control a game in the middle of the park has posed significant questions; the players’ answers have only been hesitant.
Two of those midfielders symbolise the mood surrounding Argentina and this World Cup. On the one hand Javier Mascherano, who turns 34 on 8 June and plays in a weak Chinese league, is clearly in decline and seems to mirror the plight of the national team. On the other Giovani Lo Celso, aged 22, who will have to assert more influence if Bielsa’s side are to do well. He is a moderate player, able to create attacks, who proved his worth last season at PSG. He is more engaged with the whole unit than some of his peers; he can initiate attacks and pass between the lines to the forwards. And therein lies another concern. Messi’s explosive partners – the likes of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain – must not let their captain toil alone if they dream of winning the cup. Argentina may lose with Messi, but the sense is that they will never win without him.
Probable starting eleven: (4-2-3-1)
Mercado, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico
Biglia Lo Celso
Meza Messi Di María
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Giovani Lo Celso. European footfall has made Lo Celso a versatile, complete and decisive player. He left Rosario Central as a creative midfielder, but at Paris Saint-Germain he has developed his range of skills and therefore his influence on his teams has grown. He is now much more able to defend against counter-attacks and as well as contribute defensively by shadowing the opponents’ best players. Not only that, his first touch – and pass – is excellent and he sometimes pops up in the opposition penalty area. From the midfield, he may actually be the perfect partner Messi has wanted to have in the national team for so long.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Javier Mascherano. It was quite apparent that he could not keep on playing for Barcelona and only went to China, really, so that he could stay in the game and thus have a chance to play in another World Cup. But playing in the Chinese Super League has not helped him much and, while still an option in defence or midfield, his best days are clearly behind him. When he plays, though, he can have a really positive influence on this team-mates.
What is the realistic aim for Argentina at the World Cup and why?
Despite having Lionel Messi, the best footballer in the world, a realistic aim for Argentina is to sneak into the quarter finals. Argentina’s national team arrives to Russia 2018 after many years of structural mismanagement that have left scars. The coach, Jorge Sampaoli, has only been in charge for a year and the team still lacks a recognisable identity.