With much of the pre-tournament conversation surrounding the usual European power-houses, one could be forgiven for overlooking this year’s South American contingent, which is making a headstrong charge into the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Favourites, Brazil, will be joined by Columbia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Peru at the showpiece event in Russia, but the prevailing narrative suggests that only the Seleção can be considered legitimate contenders for the biggest prize in sport.
Argentina, in particular, have drifted away from the media radar, enjoying a faction of the attention and expectation that is heaped on the likes of Germany, France, Spain, and Brazil. This, of course, is despite the presence of one Lionel Messi.
A complicated qualification campaign
Argentina have perhaps been written-off due to their rather long-winded and stressful qualification campaign — which saw La Albiceleste win just 7 of their 18 games.
Indeed, it was only after a Messi masterclass against Ecuador in a last-ditch qualification playoff match (which included a hat-trick) that Argentina scraped their way to Russia. Just five days earlier, Argentina’s World Cup hopes appeared to be in jeopardy following a near-disasterous 0-0 draw with Peru. But fortunately for the team, football fans, and not least of all for Messi, Argentina eventually pulled through. But straightforward, it was not.
An embarrassment of riches
But while Argentina may have made lift difficult for themselves in their qualifying section, the squad nonetheless boasts a plethora of top-tier talent. This is, let’s not forget, a team that could not find room for Serie A top scorer, Mauro Icardi, in the 23-man sqaud.
When it comes to fitting Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain in the forward positions, manager, George Sampaouli, finds himself with a happy dilemma that will require serious consideration. This is not to mention the other talented creative players such as Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega and Manuel Lanzini. These aren’t simply good players either. Lionel Messi boasts more goals than Mohammed Salah on 34, with another 12 assists in only 36 league matches. Paulo Dybala tallied up an impressive 22 goals and 5 assists in 33 league games. Finally, while Higuain experienced somewhat of a drop-off in his season productivity, Sergio Aguero managed 27 league goals and assists in only 25 games in a rampant Manchester City side.
A team of (domestic) champions
A more significant piece of information is that each of the aforementioned players won their respective domestic leagues (on this point, they find themselves in a similar situation to Brazil). Not only this, but Juventus, Manchester City and Barcelona all completed a domestic double trophy haul. There can be no argument that Argentina aren’t heading into this tournament with huge momentum and experience in success. One would hope that Sampaouli can replicate his fantastic attacking style of play seen at Seville with these world class talents.
Another reason that the 2014 World Cup finalists may have flown under the radar is the confinement of the 2017/18 season’s successes to purely domestic trophies. None of the headline players had a memorable run in any European competition, and so will have attracted far less global attention than the likes of Mohammed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi’s last chance
Moving away from trophies and statistics, it would be ludicrous to forget the potential importance of this tournament to certain players. It is surely established that Lionel Messi is a once in a generation player, and, at 30 (turning 31 on 24th June), can be expected to play his final significant role in a World Cup push after years of near-misses. Seeking his last remaining untapped accolade, Messi will want to win the timeless trophy for his proud nation and place himself above Diego Maradona in the pantheon of Argentine greats. Club football is one thing, but to gain the reverence of his people, he must perform on the world stage for his nation.
Furthermore, given Ronaldo’s dominance in the Champions league and equalling of Messi’s Ballon D’or record, the Argentine will want to solidify himself as the greatest player of all time. In addition, the likes of Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain will also be wanting to correct the mistakes made in the Copa America and 2014 World Cup finals.
While they paved a shaky path to Russia 2018, Argentina must not be underestimated. In a group consisting of Nigeria, Croatia and Iceland you would expect them to make it to the knockout stages, after which, you would not put it past a Lionel Messi-driven front line to beat any defence in the world.