Argentina World Cup squad guide: Full fixtures, group, ones to watch, odds and more
This may well be Lionel Messiâs last chance to win a World Cup, but there is precious little optimism that 2018 will be the year when Argentina finally get their hands on the trophy that would erase the only remaining criticism of their superstarâs legacy.
Jorge Sampaoli was appointed manager last summer on the strength of a brilliant four-year spell in charge of Chile that culminated in glory at the 2015 Copa America at Argentinaâs expense. He is undoubtedly a talented coach, but the team he has built during the scant preparation time offered by international breaks is muddled, unbalanced and worryingly vulnerable.
Four goals conceded in a friendly defeat against Group D opponents Nigeria in November were followed by a spectacular 6-1 humbling against Spain in March, suggesting that this Argentina side does not deserve consideration as a top-tier World Cup contender.
A pre-World Cup training camp could finally provide Sampaoli with the time he needs to address the most urgent flaws in his team, but the fear is that he simply does not have the defensive personnel to execute the dynamic, high-pressing style that characterised his best work with Chile.
Who do they play?
Argentina vs Iceland â" 14:00, Saturday 16 June
Argentina vs Croatia â" 19:00, Thursday 21 June
Argentina vs Nigeria â" 19:00, Tuesday 26 June
Lionel Messi: Argentinaâs road to the World Cup reinforced the notion that as long as you have the best player in the world on your side, you have a chance. Messi was the teamâs top scorer in qualifying with seven goals despite featuring in just 10 of 18 matches; they failed to win any of the other eight games. Operating as a No10 behind Sergio Aguero, he will be at the heart of everything they do.
Sergio Aguero: Messi has been undermined in a succession of international finals by Gonzalo Higuainâs failure to convert key chances, so the form and fitness of his long-time friend Aguero will be crucial. Worryingly for Sampaoli the last two months of Manchester Cityâs season yielded few minutes for his first-choice striker, but there is no doubting Agueroâs raw ability and killer instinct.
Nicolas Otamendiâ: Heading into this tournament on the back of a career-best season at City, Otamendi is Argentinaâs most accomplished and reliable defender by a distance. Much will be expected of him to hold an unconvincing backline together, particularly if Sampaoli asks his forwards and midfielders to press opponents high up the pitch in Russia.
One to watch
Cristian Pavon: Argentina are not short of elite attacking options, but there is growing momentum behind Pavon to start on the right flank at the World Cup. It is the position that the 22-year-old has made his own at Boca Juniors, registering 15 goals and 20 assists in the last two years for a team that has won back-to-back domestic league titles. His ability to score or create with pace and skill in the final third could make him a breakout star in Russia.
How did they get here?
Argentina finished third in South American qualifying, three points behind Uruguay and 13 adrift of Brazil. A campaign that featured three different managers â" Tata Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Sampaoli â" yielded just 19 goals scored in 18 matches, an incredible tally given the attacking talent available to La Albiceleste.
Things began in the worst possible way with a 2-0 home defeat to Ecuador and, after further losses against Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil as well as home draws against Venezuela and Peru, it wasnât until Messi scored a hat-trick away against Ecuador on the final match day that Sampaoliâs men secured their place in Russia.
How will they do?
Finalists in Brazil four years ago, Argentina would do very well to repeat the feat this time around. Anything less than topping Group D ahead of Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland would be a disappointment despite their qualifying struggles, and as winners a potential round of 16 clash against Denmark, Peru or Australia will hold few fears.
It is in the quarter-finals that things get really difficult, with Julen Lopeteguiâs resurgent Spain the likeliest opponents. If Argentina are to go deep i n this competition, they will need Messi to perform like the all-time great he is in the biggest moments.
Odds of winning the tournament: 10/1
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Wilfredo Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate).
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon).
Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Angel di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).
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