With a reputation that precedes them, Argentina are always among the bookies’ favourites for the World Cup, and could well be again here, even after expectations were brought crashing down to earth by their 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain in a Madrid friendly in March.
Even after that, there are still reasons not to write them off entirely.
If the defence can tighten up and if the first choice attack are all fit – most importantly, if Lionel Messi is fit – who knows what could happen?
Argentina’s World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Guzman, Caballero, Armani
Defenders: Mercado, Ansaldi, Otamendi, Fazio, Rojo, Tagliafico, Acuna
Midfielders: Mascherano, Salvio, Biglia, Lo Celso, Banega, Lanzini, Meza, Di Maria, Pavon
Forwards: Messi, Dybala, Higuain, Aguero
How did they qualify?
By the skin of their teeth. The qualification campaign began under the charge of Gerardo Martino, a manager the fans never really warmed to but who has been made to look much better given what came afterwards.
He oversaw an iffy start, with just two points from the first three matches, before the team found their identity and won three in a row. And then came the Copa America Centenario in the United States, and a third tournament final frustration in 24 months.
But most damaging was the sense Martino got that the Argentine FA were messing him around. Going into the tournament, Argentine media reported the manager and his staff hadn’t been paid in seven months.
Added to this, there was a feeling that clubs – whose presidents make up the AFA board – were refusing to release players for the Olympic squad. This was denied, but when Martino resigned and Julio Olarticoechea stepped into the breach to coach the Olympic side, those same players immediately became available for training.
Edgardo Bauza was the wrong choice to replace Martino for the senior national side but ultimately he was the only option with many of the preferred alternatives unavailable.
Jorge Sampaoli had just signed a contract with Sevilla and the release clause during the first 12 months was crippling, while Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino ruled themselves out.
Argentina never gelled under him, managed just three wins, and were outside the qualification places when he was fired with four matches remaining.
By this time, Sampaoli was available, and while many fans complained he was getting the job through media lobbying, get the job he did. Draws with Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru did nothing to win the fans over, and when Ecuador took the lead after just 38 seconds of the final, must-win qualifier in Quito, everyone feared the worst … and then up stepped Lionel Messi, scoring a high-altitude hat trick to send his team to Russia at the last gasp.