There is no side in Russia that divides opinion quite like Argentina – contenders to lift the trophy for the third time or prime candidates to be 2018’s major flop. So how can opinion vary so much?
The Messi factor
Argentina’s hopes lie with one man. Luckily that one man is the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, and for the simple reason that he will be wearing the Albiceleste in Russia, some at least give Jorge Sampaoli’s side a shot.
Four years ago, Messi dragged Alejandro Sabella’s Argentina all the way to the final. A disappointing display against Germany ended in heartache but as the mercurial number ten picked up the tournament’s Golden Ball award, talk of Messi-dependence echoed loud.
Three coaches later and this dependence is greater than ever.
Messi’s hat-trick in Quito in the final round of CONMEBOL qualifying booked Argentina’s spot in Russia but the entire campaign was something of a one-man show.
Suspension and injury saw Messi miss a large chunk of the action and the effect was clear.
Argentina with Messi: Won 6; Drawn 3; Lost 1; Win percentage 60%
Argentina without Messi: Won 1; Drawn 4; Lost 3; Win percentage 12.5%
Seven goals from his ten qualifiers made Messi Argentina’s leading scorer ahead of Angel Di Maria, Lucas Pratto and Gabriel Mercado with just two apiece. Over the last six matches (a duration of almost a year) no other Argentina player managed a goal and so Messi will be in Russia once more as creator, scorer, leader, and everything in between.
One man can only do so much.
One other-worldly talent doesn’t make a team and if Argentina’s qualifying is anything to go by, a first-round exit looks more likely than the Albiceleste winning the whole thing.
The last time that happened was in 2002 when Marcelo Bielsa’s side containing the likes of Batistuta, Zanetti, Ayala, Simeone, Ortega, Veron and Crespo failed to progress from a group with Nigeria, England, and Sweden.
The country at that moment had greater concerns about an economy that had crashed but was shocked nonetheless that Bielsa’s side that had topped qualification and were unbeaten in two years had fallen at the first hurdle.
This time round there is no such background to provide confidence.
Jorge Sampaoli had four qualifiers to ensure a spot in Russia and managed that but the coach has had little time to implement new ideas. Argentina has struggled to adapt to his intense, high-press methods and the 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain in March was a wake-up call of just how badly things could get.
Messi didn’t play that night in Madrid, it was perhaps an anomaly that Sampaoli will have learned from but there are cracks there that, if exposed in Russia, no one will be surprised.
The chatter in the camp from Messi and the AFA president is talking down Argentina’s hopes and while they maintain they have a chance, the realistic target is the quarters or semi-finals.
Unless Russia is an unmitigated disaster, Jorge Sampaoli seems secure in his job. The old guard have a final shot at glory, a chance at redemption and after that, a new era begins.
As much as everyone would love to see Messi lift the trophy, it looks like a pipe dream and in reality, a run to the last eight (four at a push) would be a decent return and Sampaoli could look to next summer’s Copa América to build a new-look, younger Argentina around a certain number ten.