World Cup preview: Argentina

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews Argentina's chances of going one better than four years ago, when they were beaten in the final.

Argentina will once again be considered among the favourites to lift the trophy when they arrive in Russia for this summer's World Cup, despite almost missing out on the tournament altogether.

A disappointing qualifying section saw them only seal their place in Russia on the final matchday, while star player Lionel Messi even retired from international football in the midst of their campaign.

The Argentina team line up before their friendly game with Haiti on May 29, 2018© Reuters

However, Messi is now back in the blue and white of the national team and the two-time world champions will be hoping to go one better than four years ago, when they were beaten in the final by Germany.

Here, Sports Mole assesses their chances of success in Russia.


GROUP

The draw was relatively kind to Argentina, who will be expected to finish top of Group D with minimum fuss.

World Cup Group D

La Albiceleste will not underestimate an Iceland side that did so well at Euro 2016, a Nigerian team that has qualified for six of the last seven tournaments or a Croatian squad boasting the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic, but it would take a surprise along the way to deny them top spot.

Argentina will begin their campaign against the banana skin that is Iceland before their toughest game on paper - against Croatia - five days later. Victory in both could see them have qualification wrapped up before their final match against Nigeria.

ARGENTINA FIXTURES

June 16: Argentina vs. Iceland (2pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)
June 21: Argentina vs. Croatia (7pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)
June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina (7pm, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Argentina were a whisker away from missing out on a place at the World Cup for the first time since 1970 heading into the final matchday of South American qualifying, sitting sixth in the standings and outside the five qualifying places.

Things got even worse for them when Ecuador opened the scoring after just one minute in notoriously difficult high altitude conditions, but Messi - who earlier in the campaign had come out of retirement - stepped up with a memorable individual performance which saw him score a hat-trick to drag his side to the World Cup.

Lionel Messi celebrates with his Argentina teammates after clinching qualification for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Such inspiration had been sorely lacking in their campaign up to that stage; Argentina had scored only one goal in four winless games prior to that to leave themselves on the brink, and throughout their 18 games they found the back of the net just 19 times - only Bolivia managed fewer.

Argentina had also won only two of their 10 games before that final matchday, which saw six teams separated by only four points and just four qualifying places still up for grabs.

Messi's heroics ultimately lifted his side up to third in the standings, though, behind only Brazil and Uruguay.


RECENT FORM

Argentina's World Cup preparations were disrupted by the late cancellation of their warm-up friendly with Israel due to political reasons, meaning that they have played just once since losing 6-1 to Spain in March.

The solitary warm-up outing will not exactly have prepared them for the level of opposition they may have face this summer either, although Messi's hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Haiti did at least hint that their star man is sharp enough.

Argentina players celebrate during their international friendly with Haiti in June 2018© Reuters

It has been a mixed bag for Jorge Sampaoli's side since booking their place in Russia, recording victories over the home nation and Italy in addition to that win over Haiti, but also suffering some worrying defeats.

Nigeria came from two goals down to win 4-2 in a November friendly in Krasnodar, while in March Argentina fell to a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Spain in Madrid - although on both occasions they were without Messi.


SQUAD

Argentina World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres).

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino).

Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di María, Giovani Lo Celso (both Paris St-Germain), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (both Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).


STAR PLAYER - Lionel Messi

Argentina and Barcelona forward Lionel Messi in action during an international friendly with Haiti on May 29, 2018© Reuters

Retirement fears now a thing of the past, Argentina are banking on Messi turning up in Russia if they are to have any hope of overcoming the big boys - and indeed progressing from an unpredictable group.

Fancied by many to go one better than four years ago, the South American giants all too often rely on undisputed star man Lionel Messi to get them over the line in key matches.

If not for his hat-trick in that crucial showdown with Ecuador, the World Cup would be taking place without one of its superpowers this summer.

Thankfully for La Albiceleste, and indeed the neutrals, Messi will have another chance - possibly his last - to match the feat of Diego Maradona in dragging his side to World Cup victory.

Sampaoli has crafted his side to get the best out of the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, hence the exclusion of some key men, and it is now down to Messi to end his nation's recent hoodoo of falling narrowly short in major competitions - his status as the greatest of all time may well depend on it.


MANAGER - Jorge Sampaoli

Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli on May 30, 2018© Reuters

Jorge Sampaoli may have always dreamed of taking charge of his native Argentina, but he would have wanted his appointment to come in better circumstances as he became the team's third manager of a tumultuous qualifying campaign.

The 58-year-old did just enough to take his side to the World Cup, with a little help from Messi, and Argentina will now be hoping that he can lead them to silverware as he did with Chile at their expense in 2015.

Chile beat Argentina on penalties in the final of the Copa America that year, and Sampaoli's achievement of steering them to their first ever title earned him a nomination for the FIFA World Coach of the Year award.

Having cut his teeth with a decade-long spell in South America, Sampaoli returned to club management with Sevilla in 2016, but the lure of taking over Argentina proved too strong and in May 2017 his appointment was confirmed.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Winners (1978, 1986)

Argentina's Diego Maradona lifts the World Cup trophy after helping his team to the 1986 title© Reuters

Argentina won the World Cup twice in an eight-year spell, firstly with the Mario Kempes-inspired success on home soil in 1978 before Diego Maradona experienced his crowning moment in 1986 - with a little assist from God along the way.

La Albiceleste have been beaten finalists on three occasions, though, including four years ago in Brazil when Mario Gotze scored the only goal of the game in extra time to hand Germany the title.

There was also late heartbreak at the hands of Germany in 1990 when Andreas Brehme's 85th-minute penalty prevented Argentina retaining the title, and way back in the first ever tournament in 1930 they were beaten by hosts Uruguay in the final.

Argentina withdrew from the tournaments between 1938 and 1954, while they failed to qualify in 1970, but they have been present in 16 of the previous 20 World Cup editions.

Only once since 1962 have they failed to make it through the group stages having qualified too, with that disappointment coming in 2002 when David Beckham's penalty contributed to their demise.


PREDICTION

Argentina are arguably the highest-profile team who could conceivably crash out in the group stages, although they will still be expected to top Group D ahead of Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland.

Doing so would likely set up a last-16 tie with Peru which they will again be favourites to win, but a quarter-final showdown with Spain may be a step too far given their overwhelming reliance on Messi.

VERDICT: Quarter-finals

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How far will Argentina go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
3.1%
Last 16
3.1%
Quarter-finals
9.4%
Semi-finals
21.9%
Runners-up
3.1%
Winners
59.4%
Croatia's Dejan Lovren gestures at the end of the match against Brazil on June 3, 2018
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Lovren named in Croatia's final WC squad
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