Can mighty Messi lead Argentina to glory?: Argentina World Cup Preview
Provisional 26-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Monaco), Mariano Andújar (Catania), Agustín Orión (Boca Juniors).
Defenders: Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta (both Manchester City), Federico Fernández (Napoli), Marcos Rojo (Sporting Lisbon), Ezequiel Garay (Benfica), Nicolás Otamendi (Atlético Mineiro), Hugo Campagnaro (Internazionale), José Maria Basanta (Monterrey).
Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Maxi Rodriguez and Ever Banega (both Newell’s Old Boys), Fernando Gago (Boca Juniors), Ángel di María (Real Madrid), José Ernesto Sosa (Atlético Madrid), Lucas Biglia (Lazio), Augusto Fernández (Celta Vigo), Enzo Pérez (Benfica), Ricardo Álvarez (Internazionale).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Paris Saint-Germain), Rodrigo Palacio (Internazionale).
Argentina’s Road to Rio:
The South American portion of qualification for this summer’s World Cup was unusual in that the powerhouse of Brazil was not present. They were of course granted a place in the finals being hosts of the tournament itself which should have made qualifying easier for the other regulars. Despite the fact that Argentina did indeed come out at the summit of the group should not hide the fact that their run was not completely without flaw. A generally good set of results was marred with a shock defeat at the hands of Venezuela and being held twice to disappointing draws by Bolivia. Uruguay’s struggles should have allowed Argentina to walk away with proceedings but top spot was not a certainty for much of the process. Towards the culmination of the group and in recent friendly internationals, a more settled line-up has been decided upon and if these players remain fit, we could see the squad peak at just the right moment.
From just a quick glance at the talent on display, it is clear to see that Argentina will be a serious contender for the final trophy this summer. They have a four-time winner of the Ballon D’Or among their ranks and several other world class players too, many of whom have won club trophies this season. A trio from Manchester City are formidable opponents as the even the mistake-prone Martin Demichelis grew into his role at the Etihad since the turn of the year. Javier Mascherano is a terrific competitor and when you add Di Maria into the mix, their midfield is full of both energy and quality. Their front line is jam-packed with star names; so much so that the coach could afford to leave out Carlos Tevez, and are possibly the most dangerous in the entire tournament.
It is in defence where you feel they may be let down in the biggest of matches. It is unfair to call them poor, but they are simply not up to the standard of the rest of the team. When you look at other World Cup favourites such as Brazil, Spain or Germany, their back lines are equally as fearsome as the rest of their line-up. Will Argentina’s defence be their downfall? We will have to wait and see.
Three Key Players:
The little maestro has not been able to boast a fantastic domestic season by his own impossibly high standards, but you have to feel that Argentina will not win anything without Messi at his peak. Having missed out on the Ballon D’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo this year, Messi’s motivation will be high for sure. A World Cup triumph will go some way to securing next year’s award, and would be a shot across the bows of his critics that have raised their heads this campaign. Comparisons to Maradona have been rife throughout the career of the Barcelona starlet, and it is the opinion of some that Messi has to win a World Cup to be considered alongside the legendary former coach. I do not necessarily share this belief, but guiding his nation to World Cup glory on the turf of their bitter rivals would absolutely cement him in folklore as one of the best ever to have graced the planet.
Manchester City’s squat forward has had an injury-ravaged season where niggling muscular complaints restricted his performances to rather stop-start ones. Despite this, he was still able to achieve an impressive 28 goals and is widely regarded amongst City fans as the player who makes their side tick. The Citizens certainly lost a degree of attacking impetus when he was absent, and his relationship up front with Messi and Higuain over the summer will be vital to the Argentine goal output. We have to hope that he has shaken off his injury concerns so that the delightful interchanging play in the forward line can be a reality; in full flow it truly is a thing of beauty.
With all the attacking intent intertwined throughout the Argentinian side, the presence of a defensively aware is a necessity. While others will flood forward, even from full back, Javier Mascherano is one who understands the importance of retaining shape and defensive solidity. He was crucial in this regard at Liverpool when he played his more usual defensive midfield role at club level, but at Barcelona he has generally been started at centre half. This can only have had a positive impact on his ability to track runners and block set piece attacks. His career with Argentina has remained in a midfield berth regardless of position for his club and the engine he possesses will be vital to both initiate attacks and break up play. He is a master of keeping it simple and is aware of the value of feeding those who have more technical ability than himself. Mascherano’s warrior-like mentality is certainly one that the rest of the squad should look to reflect in preparation for the difficult matches ahead.
Probable Starting XI:
Argentina have been matched up with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria in this summer’s group phase, none of whom should pose a serious threat to their progression into the latter stages. Messi’s men face Bosnia first who are the stiffest test on paper with a couple of big names at their disposal. The eastern Europeans are more prolific in the final third than in defence so as long as Argentina can marshal Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko, they should not have too much trouble. In the baking heat and sweltering humidity of Brazil’s climate, maintaining possession will be absolutely key, and this is something the Argentines are masters at. Even taking into account the probable stoic nature of the Nigerian and Iranian resolve in the following group games, they will inevitably tire, allowing more space for the lethal front players to cause havoc.
I expect them to top the group, possibly attaining 9 points in the process, which would most likely see them match up against Switzerland from Group E. The Swiss are a tougher proposition than any of Argentina’s own group but I still foresee them being swept aside with relative ease. By this point in the tournament, the possible permutations make predicting match-ups almost impossible, but in this case, I do not feel it matters. They may not have the strongest of defences, but this is only in comparison to some of the best in the world. If their attackers find their feet in Brazil, expect goals a plenty and their offensive fluidity may well power them all the way through to the final. Could we have a Brazil vs Argentina World Cup decider on our hands? It is a distinct possibility and one that every neutral would love to see I’m sure. Who may be the eventual victors you ask? That is for another day.