World Cup: Struggling Argentina must improve to hit heights again

Sports Monday 04/June/2018 15:20 PM
By: Times News Service
World Cup: Struggling Argentina must improve to hit heights again

ARGENTINA last won a major title 25 years ago and while the prospect of ending that drought has looked so close in recent years it now seems a distant prospect.
Argentina last picked up silverware at the 1993 Copa America, when Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone were playing.
They reached the finals of the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 but lost all three, the first in extra-time to Germany, the other two to Chile on penalties.
Since then they have gone backwards, with the Argentine Football Association in turmoil and three national team managers in three years unable to get the best out of unquestionably one of the world’s most star-studded squads.
After settling on Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who won the Copa America with Chile in 2015, they have yet to find their groove despite having talisman Lionel Messi to call on.
One win in four competitive games tells its own story and narrow victories over World Cup hosts Russia and Italy, who have surprisingly missed out on this year’s finals, in friendlies appear less significant than hammerings by Nigeria and Spain.
“We need to learn from our mistakes,” Sampaoli said after the Spain defeat. “We need to face the music and move on.”
Quite how he plans to do that remains a mystery.
Sampaoli has been in charge for almost a year but he has yet to decide on his best team, or even his best squad.
Part of the problem is age.
Defenders Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta have not been replaced with players of the same quality and there are no new midfielders as influential as Javier Mascherano or the injured Fernando Gago.
Even up front, where Sampaoli has an embarrassment of riches, he has still to get it right.
Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria would find a place in any top European club side but at international level Argentina managed just 19 goals in 18 World Cup qualifiers.
What they do have, of course, is Messi, and any team with the Barcelona genius in their ranks will al-ways be a candidate for silverware.
This could be the last World Cup for a player who is now into his 30s and who retired from international football in 2016 only to reverse his decision a few weeks later.
If Argentina’s prospects depended only on Messi, their fans could look forward to the World Cup with some confidence but Messi needs help. There is no guarantee he will get it.


FIFA ranking: 5

Previous tournaments
Argentina have played in 16 World Cup tournaments and have won the title twice -- at home in 1978 and in Mexico eight years later when a Diego Maradona-inspired side got past England on their way to a thrilling 3-2 win over West Germany in the final. Argentina have also reached the final on three other occasions -- at the first World Cup in 1930, in Italy in 1990 and four years ago in Brazil where they lost in extra time to Germany.

Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Sampaoli, 58, got the job as coach only a year before the finals in Russia, taking over at a troubled time and becoming the third man to lead the team since Alejandro Sabella left after the 2014 World Cup. The diminutive coach guided Chile to their first international title, winning the Copa America in 2015 with a fast pressing style which reflects his own hyperactive pacing along the touchline. But Sampaoli has struggled to organise Argentina in the same way and one win in four competitive games, plus recent hammerings by Nigeria and Spain, show he has his work cut out.

Key players
Lionel Messi: Messi will celebrate his 31st birthday during the tournament and this could be his last chance to win the one big title he lacks. Few people doubt the five-times World Player of the Year will score goals. The big question is whether his team mates will be inspired enough to approach his level.
Sergio Romero: The goalkeeping position has been a problem for Argentina for years and although suc-cessive coaches have stuck with Romero he has never quite been the answer. As back-up to David de Gea at Manchester United most of his appearances this season have come in domestic cup games but with Argentina’s defence looking flimsy he may be looking at a busy tournament.
Gonzalo Higuain: Higuain is Argentina’s enigma, a player who seems to score at will for his club Ju-ventus but labours to hit the target when wearing the national shirt. Higuain’s recent record for Argentina - one goal in nine World Cup qualifiers - is so poor that he is not even a certainty to go to Russia un-der Sampaoli. However, another fine season for Juve suggests Sampaoli cannot afford to leave him out. If Higuain can reproduce his club form Argentina will be dangerous.

Form guide
Argentina struggled in the qualifiers and they have barely improved since, with inconsistent results and a porous defence. They lost a November friendly 4-2 against Group D opponents Nigeria and although a 2-0 win over Italy in March briefly raised their spirits, they lost 6-1 to Spain a few days later in one of their worst performances in years.

How they qualified
Argentina booked their ticket to Russia largely due to the brilliance of Messi, who scored a hat-trick in their final game against Ecuador. The Argentines needed to win the match to guarantee qualification, and the 3-1 victory lifted them into third place in the 10-team group. Most surprisingly for a team with Mes-si, Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria and Higuain in their ranks, they scored just 19 goals in the 18 qualify-ing matches. Only Bolivia scored fewer.

Argentina reached the World Cup final in 2014 and the Copa America final in 2015 and 2016, but it has been downhill ever since for the twice champions. They are in the hardest group of all, Group D, alongside Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. If they qualify they will at least be in the side of the draw that would keep them apart from Brazil, Germany and England before the final. Another advantage for Ar-gentina is that they begin their campaign early, just three days into the tournament on June 16 against Iceland, giving the players more time to rest.