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Argentina: The legendary status of Lionel Messi is on the line

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.

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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.

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Key men

Lionel Messi, Lionel Messi and Lionel Messi. With the lack of time international coaches get to prepare their teams when compared to their club counterparts, it makes sense for Argentina’s Plan A to revolve around perhaps the best attacking footballer of all time.

The flip side of that is that too often during qualifying, Messi’s teammates seemed to be expecting him to drag them through on his own, and if he isn’t available, through injury or (less likely) suspension, they can look lost.

It’s also hard to escape the sense, listening to Sampaoli talk in press conferences and interviews, that he’s as in thrall to Messi as the most guilty of his players. Rather than build an attacking plan in which Messi could be the difference between a good and a great team, there’s a danger he might be piling everything onto the Barcelona man’s shoulders and forgetting about the surrounding structure.

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After Messi, Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero is the first choice centre forward, and his fitness – he’s suffered stress injuries in big games for Argentina before, but Sampaoli says he has no plans to take a team psychologist to Russia – will be key.

His understanding with Messi is as good as could be hoped for considering the two have never played for the same club. Elsewhere, Nicolas Otamendi, even after his horror show against Spain, is the first choice centre back and Gabriel Mercado, charging forward from right back to overlap Messi when the latter moves to the right and then cuts inside, will be a vital contributor to the team’s shape.

One to watch - Cristian Pavon

Fans who’ve seen Argentina in their post-qualifying friendlies will already have caught a glimpse or two of Cristian Pavon, but for much of the rest of the world he’ll be something of an unknown entity.

The Boca Juniors winger can often play as though he has a bucket over his head, but over the last eight months or so he does at least appear to have cut some eye holes in it.

More seriously, Pavon’s pace and always obvious talent have been married over the last season to an improved work ethic, and he’s been a key player in a Boca side that just claimed a second consecutive Argentine league title, leading from the first weekend to the last of Argentina’s 27-match season. In a must-win Copa Libertadores group game against Alianza Lima in May, he laid on no fewer than four assists, earning a standing ovation when he was taken off with a few minutes remaining in Boca’s 5-0 win.

He’s what might in English parlance be termed an ‘old-fashioned’ winger, meaning he can appear something of a one-trick pony at times, but in a squad hardly overloaded with such players that should make him a more than useful extra ingredient – Sampaoli is expected to see him as an impact substitute to introduce against tired defences when the game opens up in the second half.

His form over the course of the season just gone means he’s unlikely to remain a Boca player much longer, and his opportunities – as well as how he takes them – in Russia could go a long way to affecting his final destination.

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The manager

Jorge Sampaoli has had all his success at club and international level outside Argentina, and that hasn’t helped his standing with the fans – even though it was he who managed the Chile side which beat Argentina in the final of the 2015 Copa America.

Starting off in the lower leagues in his home country, he soon moved to Peru to cut his teeth in professional management. A poor spell at Juan Aurich gave way to a better one at Coronel Bolognesi, who he took to the club’s first ever continental appearances in the Copa Sudamericana, before struggling at Sporting Cristal.

Mixed spells with Chile’s O’Higgins and Ecuadorian giants Emelec were followed by his first real success during a two-year spell at Universidad de Chile, where he won three league titles and the 2011 Copa Sudamericana with a team playing thrilling football with a high press that was uncharacteristic for the South American game.

The national team job followed, with plenty of plaudits – not least for capturing the 2015 Copa America on home soil, Chile’s first ever international trophy. He impressed during his single season at Sevilla, before leaving to answer the call of his homeland when Edgardo Bauza was sacked.

Sampaoli likes to play high-paced, attacking football and favours a back three; that’s become an issue for him with Argentina, where he isn’t blessed with a surplus of centre backs, so a shift to a back four has been looked at in recent friendlies.

With Messi likely to start nominally in the No. 10 role of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-1-2, the wide men and centre forward will be expected to lead the press. After a 4-2 defeat to Nigeria and that 6-1 tonking against Spain, though, it’s the defence which is the biggest headache for Sampaoli.

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Potential route to the final

It’s hard to resist joking that they’ll need to buy tickets if they want to be there, but four years ago the defence looked shakier than a building in an earthquake zone as well – and somehow it all came together in Brazil.

If they can top Group D, Peru or Denmark would seem to be their most likely second round opponents. Clear that hurdle and whoever’s ended up second in Group B out of European champions Portugal and Spain would be hot favourites to meet them in the quarter-finals.

Thereafter, a chance for revenge over their conquerors in the 2014 final would be on the cards, and if they can get past Germany, they could have France or neighbours Brazil waiting for them in the final.

Realistically though, given the issues in defence and midfield, a quarter-final spot is probably Argentina’s upper limit.

Expert opinion 

Ezequiel Fernández Moores works as a sports columnist for La Nacion, one of Argentina's biggest daily newspapers

"For the first time in a long time, Argentina don't travel to the World Cup among the favourites. Runners up in 1930, Argentine football has always believed itself better than it was was. Its haughtiness seemed to be justified when Argentina finally won in the 1978 World Cup, but that was on home soil and under the most savage of our dictatorships using football as a propaganda tool. The Mexico 86 tournament, then, was the culminating moment, not least because Diego Maradona, the undisputed king of that era, was a part of the win.

"Even so, that national team arrived in Mexico without any great expectations, having scraped through qualifying and put in poor performances in the preparatory friendlies, and with the democratically-elected government of Raúl Alfonsín pressuring the Argentine FA to sack manager Carlos Bilardo. In spite of this, the team came together during the tournament, Maradona was a colossus, and Argentina won its second World Cup. 'Football,' - Jorge Valdano, one of the strikers in that team, once told me - 'is the only sport in which you can do everything badly and get good results, or on the contrary you can do everything well and get bad results.'

"Argentina have done almost everything badly on the way to Russia. They've gone through three coaches during qualifying. They booked their ticket in the last qualifier with Leo Messi playing the role of saviour. They recently suffered an historic 6-1 thrashing against Spain. And with not long at all until the tournament, only a few spots in the starting XI are defined. Only Messi's presence allows us to have any hope. The new manager, Jorge Sampaoli, has managed to get almost all his previous teams playing an aggressive, attacking style.

"He's struggling to do the same with Argentina. His always dynamic football requires new, powerful engines, and in Argentina he's not got the time to give them an overhaul. He's respected the veterans who have suffered three straight defeats in two Copa América finals and one World Cup final, but subsequently hasn't been able to give enough playing time to the younger players. His constant experimentation gives a sense of insecurity, as does his exaggerated way of building the team around Messi. All this chaos reminds one of Mexico 86. Precisely the World Cup where the Albiceleste had their last triumph."

Odds

Sampaoli’s side are priced around 9/1 to win the tournament* - a decent bet considering they can call on the talents of Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Dybala.

The Barcelona forward is the favourite to win the tournament’s Golden Boot at 9/1* and he’ll likely need to bag a hatful for Argentina to advance deep into the competition.

Their shaky defence could be their undoing and it’s ultimately why the likes of Spain, France, Germany and Brazil are all favoured ahead of them.

*Please note that these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill

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