Barca ace will carry a nation’s hopes once more
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.
Hit for six...Nicolas Otamendi against Spain