World Cup Profile: Fourth time lucky for Messi and Co?

In the sixth of our profiles on the Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese teams who have qualified for this year’s World Cup finals, Lewis Blakeman questions whether this could be the year that Argentina captain Lionel Messi finally gets his hands on the elusive World Cup trophy.
by: 
Lewis Blakeman

In what may well be the last World Cup of Lionel Messi’s magnificent career, it feels like now or never for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner in his quest to add a World Cup winner’s medal to his endless collection of honours. Now 30 years old, Messi will be 34 when the next World Cup comes around, and has hinted on multiple occasions at retiring from international football following this year’s showcase.

Despite his extraordinary career at club-level, Messi is yet to win a major trophy with Argentina. La Albiceleste (The white and sky blue) have lost three straight tournament finals - two in the Copa America and one in the 2014 World Cup – with Messi failing to lead his national team to glory at the highest of stages. The 2014 World Cup final against Germany was a particularly disappointing showing from the forward, who aside from a hurried drive from the edge of the box had little impact in front of goal.

He was nonetheless awarded the ‘Player of the tournament’ award for his performances throughout the 2014 World Cup, testament to the fact that he arguably carried his side all the way into the final. Manager Jorge Sampaoli’s greatest challenge this summer will be finding a style of play that relies less on the genius of Messi and empowers his entire squad to perform to their full capabilities.

The former Chile head coach, Sampaoli, took over the Argentina job in June 2017 with Argentina in a perilous position in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification standings. His side went into the final round of fixtures without a win in their previous four games and needing a win away to Ecuador, where they had not won in sixteen years. To make matters worse, Ecuador raced into an early 1-0 lead while Argentina were still adjusting to playing at such altitude.

Step forward ‘el maestro’ Messi, who took control of the game and bagged a hat-trick to earn Argentina a 3-1 victory, ensuring his country avoided failure to qualify for the first time since 1970. Though securing a place at the World Cup was Argentina’s top priority on the night, this tendency to rely on the magic of Leo Messi in big games may well prove costly once more in the latter stages of the tournament this summer.

 

 

Sampaoli’s squad is certainly not lacking in firepower to play alongside Messi. If anything, the roster is far too top-heavy, with all of Argentina’s star players occupying the striker role. Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín will likely fill the second and third forward positions in the 23-man squad, leaving Sampaoli the tough choice of picking between Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and young superstar Lautaro Martínez for the final striker spot.

It is, therefore, strange that so many coaches have struggled to find a formula to accommodate such a wealth of attacking talent. Sampaoli, who is Argentina’s third coach since the 2014 World Cup ended, even tested out a 2-3-5 formation in an attempt to find a system that works!

One thing Sampaoli will be all too aware of is that Argentina with and without Messi are two very different sides. A recent 6-1 defeat to Spain, while Messi was out nursing an injury, highlighted just how vulnerable his team were without their talisman, emphasising once more the need for other star players to step up and be counted.

And yet, with Messi in the side, there is no reason why La Albiceleste cannot go on and win a third World Cup - their first since Maradona single-handedly won the trophy for his nation in 1986. They should expect to top their group, despite finding themselves in one of the tougher pools alongside Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria; and they have invaluable knock-out phase experience, having reached the final in the previous tournament.

Plus, they now have a far superior coach than they did in 2014. Sampaoli already has one international tournament success to his name, winning the 2015 Copa América final with Chile against Argentina. The 58-year old Argentine will hope to use his tactical experience and wisdom to guide his own country to victory this time around.

Having come so close in 2014, Argentina will be desperate to go one step further and clinch their first World Cup in 32 frustrating years. For all he has achieved during his incredible career, some would say Leo Messi almost deserves a World Cup victory – which would surely position him as the undisputed greatest footballer of all time. His team undoubtedly have the talent; it will simply be a case of everybody pulling together for La Albiceleste and winning as a team, and not relying on one magnificent individual.

THE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ángel Di Maríá. Given the abundance of attacking talent at Jorge Sampaoli’s disposal, Di Mariá’s versality may prove invaluable at this summer’s World Cup - with the skilful left-footer able to operate on the left wing, in behind the central striker, or cutting in from the right side. He offers width to an Argentina team who too often in the past have tried to play through the middle, and may be able to stretch tired defences in the latter stages of the tournament. He is quick, skilful, creative and has an eye for goal. If played in the right formation he could well be a stand-out performer in Russia.

Javier Mascherano. The veteran defensive midfielder has been employed in recent years as more of a central defender, sitting in alongside a quicker defensive partner. At just 5 ft 8 inches, his physique does not meet the traditional mould of a defender, but his outstanding awareness and positioning made him a key player for Barcelona during his eight-year spell with the club before a recent move to Hebei China Fortune. With 142 international caps, his professionalism will be invaluable for an Argentina side lacking in experienced defensive players.

Nicolás Otamendi. The Manchester City centre-back has enjoyed an impressive season under Pep Guardiola, who has managed to coach out some of the careless mistakes that troubled the defender in the early years of his career. A decent passer of the ball, Otamendi can be utilised in a ‘play out from the back’ formation, which could be vital for Argentina in closely contested games when possession is key. Likewise, his aggression in the opposition box makes him a threat from set-pieces, and may be the difference maker for Argentina if they are struggling to find a breakthrough from open play.

Lionel Messi. In what may well be his last World Cup finals appearance, Argentina captain Leo Messi will be more motivated than ever to get his hands on the one trophy that has eluded him the most. Messi has everything: pace, vision, skill, strength, awareness and humility. He is the deadliest goal scorer in world football and is a threat from almost anywhere on the pitch. He is a player that belongs on the world’s stage, and will be sure to produce plenty of stand-out moments this summer. His 61 goals make him Argentina’s record goal-scorer – a tally he will hope to add to during the 2018 World Cup!