We all know Argentina as a football powerhouse, who has won the World Cup twice (in 1978 and 1986) as well as some other major trophies. The last time they did not qualify for the World Cup was in 1970, but last year, Lionel Messi and his teammates were on the verge of a massive fiasco, which would have been heartbreaking for the 44-million nation.
Throughout the South American qualification, the Albiceleste looked shaky, inconsistent and struggled to get positive results. In 18 matches, they won just seven times and scored 19 goals despite the presence of an array of world-class attacking players such as Messi, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. The team lost at home against Ecuador and Paraguay, and were defeated in Brazil (3:0) and Bolivia. Following a home draw with Peru (0:0) in the penultimate round of matches, they were only sixth in the table - with four teams qualifying directly and the fifth-placed one progressing to the inter-confederation play-offs. Argentina’s destiny was not even in their own hands, as the Albiceleste were dependent on the rivals’ results, but ultimately the fortune smiled on Messi’s team. The fourth- and fifth-placed Colombia and Peru played a 1:1 draw in their direct duel, while Chile were defeated by Brazil, and that combination of results led to the happy end for Argentina, who climbed to the third position following a 3:1 win in Ecuador.
Dependent on Messi
Messi, who scored a hat-trick in that match, once again proved to be indispensable for his national team. That said, Lionel has won many trophies with the club during his career, but so far only the 2008 Olympics with Argentina. After the defeat against Chile in the Copa America final in 2016, Messi’s disappointment was so huge that he decided to quit the national team. However, soon the player changed his mind and made a U-turn - luckily for Argentina, who would probably have missed the World Cup qualification without their biggest star.
This dependence on Messi is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the genius from Barcelona can make a difference at any time and against any rival. On the other hand, it often looks like his teammates have no idea what to do on the pitch in case Lionel is absent or not in his best shape. That was proved once again in March, when Messi was forced to miss the friendly match against Spain, and the Albiceleste were thrashed 6:1.
And Messi is not getting younger - he will turn 31 during the World Cup. So the tournament in Russia is probably one of his last chances to win a major tournament with Argentina. Four years ago, Lionel played a crucial role in Albiceleste’s reaching the final in Brazil, but even he was unable to make the difference in the decisive match against Germany. Now the team aims to go far again, yet their prospects look pretty vague, even with the fully-fit Leo in the squad.
Who is the boss?
During the last two years, Argentina had as many as three head coaches - Gerardo Martino was replaced by Edgardo Bauzo in August 2016, but the latter was dismissed less than a year ago following a series of mediocre results, and it was Jorge Sampaoli who then took charge. However, some people say that the real boss in the team is Messi - even with his humble behaviour off the pitch, Leo makes everyone look at him and listen to him.
There was an awkward incident last year, when Lionel mistook a fellow Argentine player Sebastian Driussi for a fan. When the Albiceleste stayed in Moscow, the Zenith St.Petersburg’s Driussi arrived there, entered the team hotel and asked for a picture with Messi. Leo was sure that the person he he’d met was just another fan, and he learned the truth only when the photo was posted online.
While Driussi is not a member of the national team, Argentina’s two attacking stars currently have a big impact in Italy - Mauro Icardi at Inter, and Paulo Dybala at Juventus. However, both hardly get a chance in the Messi-dependent Albiceleste. And while there is definitely plenty of talent in attack, the team’s defensive line does not look rock-solid and raises many questions. All in all, the title of world champion would definitely crown Messi’s fantastic career and make the whole Argentina happy, but it will be hard for the team to conquer the summit.