This article is part of the Guardian’s 2018 World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who have qualified for Russia. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.
There are no solid arguments to suggest Argentina can win this World Cup. They do not have the training levels of Spain, the structure of Germany or the blend of top-class individuals and team ethos harnessed by their bitter rivals Brazil. But they do have Lionel Messi, and that in itself is a reason to believe nothing is impossible.
“If Leo is OK, the team will be more under his control than mine,” confessed the coach, Jorge Sampaoli. The most realistic objective would be progress to the quarter-finals; elimination any earlier would be frustrating and anything beyond the last eight should be seen as a very positive performance. But no one in Argentina forgets the three lost finals in a row – the 2014 World Cup and the Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016 – and a team that suffer a worrying mental brittleness will be under plenty of pressure.
One of Argentina’s weaknesses lies in goal, a position up for grabs after Sergio Romero was ruled out with a knee injury. Willy Caballero rarely featured at Chelsea last season and his deputies lack experience on this stage. In defence there is only one player of international quality, Nicolás Otamendi, and the performance of the entire backline has left a lot to be desired under Sampaoli. The coach has changed personnel and formations frequently, eventually settling on a conventional four-man defence. Marcos Rojo could actually start in central defence despite his injury problems at Manchester United last season.
There are also plenty of questions to answer in midfield, and Lucas Biglia’s injury – a double fracture of his lumbar vertebrae that casts doubt on his fitness going into the tournament – adds to the uncertainty. A lack of leadership and initiative to take hold of the ball and control a game in the middle of the park has posed significant questions; the players’ answers have been hesitant.
Two of those midfielders symbolise the mood surrounding Argentina and this World Cup. On the one hand Javier Mascherano, who turned 34 on 8 June and plays in a weak Chinese league, is clearly in decline and seems to mirror the plight of the national team. On the other Giovani Lo Celso, aged 22, who will have to assert more influence if Bielsa’s side are to do well. He is a moderate player, able to create attacks, who proved his worth last season at PSG. He is more engaged with the whole unit than some of his peers; he can initiate attacks and pass between the lines to the forwards.
And therein lies another concern. Messi’s explosive partners – players such as Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín – must not let their captain toil alone if they dream of winning the cup. Argentina may lose with Messi, but the sense is that they will never win without him.
Argentina had only one warm-up friendly after the one against Israel was cancelled. They beat Haiti 4-0 and Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick. Also, in the buildup, Sampaoli lost Manuel Lanzini to injury, meaning that Maximiliano Meza could start to the right of the attacking midfield.
Probable starting XI
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Giovani Lo Celso. European football has made Lo Celso a versatile, complete and decisive player. He left Rosario Central as a creative midfielder but at Paris Saint-Germain he has developed his range of skills and therefore his influence on his teams has grown. He is now much more able to defend against counterattacks and shadow the opponents’ best players. Not only that, his first touch – and pass – is excellent and he sometimes pops up in the opposition penalty area. From midfield he may be the perfect partner Messi has wanted in the national team for so long.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Javier Mascherano. It was apparent that he could not continue playing for Barcelona and he went to China, really, so that he could stay in the game and have a chance to play in another World Cup. But playing in the Chinese Super League has not helped him much and, although still an option in defence or midfield, his best days are clearly behind him. When he plays, though, he can have a really positive influence on his team-mates.
What is the realistic aim for Argentina at the World Cup and why?
Despite having Lionel Messi, the best footballer in the world, a realistic aim for Argentina is to sneak into the quarter-finals. Many years of structural mismanagement have left scars. The coach, Jorge Sampaoli, has been in charge for a year and the team still lack a recognisable identity.
Javier Saúl writes for La Nacion.
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