Barca ace will carry a na­tion’s hopes once more

World Soccer - - Contents -

If Sam­paoli can work some magic, and if Messi is fit enough to fire, then Ar­gentina may be able to mount a chal­lenge

It may have been an aw­ful, nervy qual­i­fi­ca­tion, with some heavy de­feats af­ter­wards, but the warn­ing lights have been flash­ing for a while. Between 1995 and 2007, Ar­gentina were un­der-20 world cham­pi­ons five times and pro­duced a qual­ity pro­duc­tion line of top tal­ent. But since then their youth teams have been poor, and this has now fil­tered through to the se­nior ranks, es­pe­cially with a lack of ren­o­va­tion in de­fen­sive po­si­tions.

To cover over the cracks they have re­lied on flashes of in­di­vid­ual bril­liance, es­pe­cially from Lionel Messi – and this de­pen­dence on the Barcelona star has come to take on ab­surd pro­por­tions.

It was, there­fore, a happy day in April for coach Jorge Sam­paoli when Barca were knocked out of the Cham­pi­ons League. With do­mes­tic ti­tles all but wrapped up, the chance im­proved that Messi might be full of gas for the World Cup – a sce­nario which also ap­plied to Ser­gio Aguero and Manch­ester City.

Four years ago, Aguero and An­gel Di Maria broke down, and Messi was forced to ra­tion him­self to spo­radic bursts. The team had qual­i­fied for 2014 with a bold ap­proach but went to the tour­na­ment with end-of-sea­son burn-out leav­ing their stars not fit enough for the game plan. Coach Ale­jan­dro Sa­bella was forced to re­think and im­pro­vised a highly de­fen­sive model of play that nearly car­ried them to the ti­tle.

This, though, is not the Sam­paoli way. There was an ob­vi­ous ques­tion mark hang­ing in the air when he took charge in the mid­dle of last year: did Ar­gentina have the de­fen­sive re­sources for his swash­buck­ling style? Re­sults would seem to in­di­cate that they do not.

So what will Sam­paoli do now? The coach said in March that he had de­fined 80 per cent of his squad, but has that fig­ure been af­fected by the 6-1 friendly ca­pit­u­la­tion against Spain? Whether or not there is a last-minute in­tro­duc­tion of new faces, the time he spends on the train­ing ground will be vi­tal. The coach made it clear that he would rather not go to Is­rael for a warm-up friendly – it means less time spent drilling his play­ers into a co­her­ent unit.

If Sam­paoli can work some magic, and if Messi is fit enough to fire, then Ar­gentina may be able to mount a chal­lenge. If not, then Group D, with the pass­ing skills of the Croatia mid­field and the phys­i­cal­ity of the Nige­rian at­tack, looms harsh and un­for­giv­ing.

Tim Vick­ery

Hit for six...Ni­co­las Ota­mendi against Spain

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