(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
Argentina last won the World Cup in 1986. It has been a long 28 years since Diego Maradona’s five goals led Argentina to the title in Mexico. After losing in the final of Italia 1990, Argentina has failed to return to the semifinals, let alone the finals. In 2002 they couldn’t even make it out of their group. In 2010, Maradona failed to lead Argentina to the same glory he achieved as a player: they lost in the quarterfinals to Germany.
After finishing first in CONMEBOL qualifying, Argentina was rewarded with an easy group. Bosnia and Herzegovina are making their World Cup debut. Nigeria doesn’t really pose a serious threat due to a weak defense. And Iran is possibly the worst team in the tournament.
Lionel Messi’s incredibly illustrious career is still missing one notable piece of silverware: a World Cup. Let’s take a look at the squad that will look to end a 28-year drought for Argentina and give Messi the one piece of silverware he is yet to claim.
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Monaco), Mariano Andujar (Catania), Agustin Orion (Boca Juniors)
Defenders: Ezequiel Garay (Benfica), Federico Fernandez (Napoli), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Sporting Lisbon), Jose-Maria Basanta (Monterrey), Hugo Campagnaro (Inter Milan), Martin Demichelis (Manchester City)
Midfielders: Fernando Gago (Boca Juniors), Lucas Biglia (Lazio), Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid), Maxi Rodriguez (Newell’s Old Boys), Ricardo Alvarez (Inter Milan), Augusto Fernandez (Celta Vigo), Enzo Perez (Benfica)
Attackers: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Paris St Germain), Rodrigo Palacio (Inter Milan)
Before we look at Argentina’s talented squad we should look at the man in charge of this squad: Alejandro Sabella. He doesn’t wear watches on both wrists (like Maradona), nor does he have a past with drug use (like Maradona). Sabella has already proven himself to be a manager who can bring home silverware. At Estudiantes he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores and the 2010 Torneo Apertura before taking over Argentina in 2011. The most notable thing about his managerial tenure thus far is his steadfast insistence for Carlos Tevez to never wear the sky blue and white as long he’s in charge. Given Argentina’s other attacking options, leaving Tevez off the squad shouldn’t prove too problematic for the Argentine attack.
Argentina’s attacking talent is the best at this tournament by a country mile. In qualifying they scored 35 goals in 16 matches, the most in CONMEBOL. Leading Argentina’s attack is the second best player in the world, Lionel Messi. (At least based on current form.) Messi is coming off his worst season in more than five years. It seems pretty ridiculous that 28 goals and 11 assists in La Liga is considered a subpar season but given Messi’s astronomical standards, it was. He scored 18 less goals than he did last season along with his assist tally declining by three. Messi also hasn’t exactly been a prolific scorer in his appearances at the World Cup: he has just one goal to his name in eight appearances. However, he did have six assists in those same eight games. Messi also had the second most goals in South American qualifying, trailing only Luis Suarez. Argentina doesn’t need Messi to be at his very best to be successful. Obviously it wouldn’t hurt for Messi to return to his 2012-13 form in Brazil but if he doesn’t, Argentina will still be in good shape in attack. A mediocre Messi is still vastly better than most strikers at this tournament.
Joining Messi in attack will be Sergio Aguero. Despite only making 23 Premier League appearances due to injuries, Aguero still managed to finish 5th in goals with 17. Along with his 17 goals he also managed to bag 10 assists. Over the last three years Aguero has proven himself to be one of the Premier League’s finest players. His pace, dribbling and finishing make him a menace for any defense. Pair him up with Messi and Argentina has a strike force that will prove difficult to stop. Not to be forgotten are the Serie A duo of Gonzalo Higuain and Rodrigo Palacio. The two of them both posted identical tallies of 17 goals and and 7 assists in Serie A and will be two more weapons Argentina has at their attacking disposal.
Argentina’s midfield and defense are decent, but nothing more. They also lack the depth of quality players that’s found in the attack for Argentina. The star man in the midfield is Angel Di Maria. The Real Madrid man is coming off a career year. His 17 La Liga assists were a personal best in Spain and led the league. Di Maria also set career highs for for key passes per game and pass success percentage according to WhoScored.com. Argentina’s more defensively minded midfielders are some what uninspiring compared to the other tournament favorites. Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano are respectable midfielders, but are at least two tiers below the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso for holding/defensive midfielders. As Spain in 2010 and Italy in 2006 have shown, you need real quality in the midfield to win the World Cup and that’s a place where Argentina is lacking.
The star man in Argentina’s defense is Pablo Zabaleta. Argentina’s starting right back was one of the driving forces for Manchester City’s return to the top of the PL table. Zabaleta is one of the Premier League’s best right backs and Argentina will hugely benefit from having him in the back line. The most likely starting center back pairing with Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez. Garay was the one of the leading reasons why Benfica won the double in Portugal along with making the Europa League Final. Benfica only allowed 18 goals in 30 games in domestic competition and that can be attributed to Garay. Accompanying Garay will be Federico Fernandez. The Napoli centerback is much like Gago and Mascherano: decent but certainly not a world class or game-changing player. If Fernandez fails to perform, Garay could find himself joined with Martin Demichelis. The no longer long haired defender had a fantastic second half of the season for Manchester City and was pivotal to their title success.
The biggest cause for concern for the Argentine defense is their goalkeeping. Their starting goalkeeper will be Sergio Romero, who started a grand total of three games this year in Ligue 1. For reasons unknown, Malaga’s Willy Caballero was snubbed from the squad. He started every game for Malaga in La Liga and kept 12 clean sheets.
Only Brazil has better odds than Argentina to win the World Cup this year. Argentina has an incredible offense that will be capable of slicing up the other powerhouses at the tournament. Rather or not Argentina ends their 28-year World Cup drought hinges not on Messi and his other attacking stars but on the midfield and defense. The performances of guys like Sergio Romero, Fernando Gago and Federico Fernandez will be what determines Argentina’s fate in this World Cup. If they perform well there’s no reason why Argentina can’t win it all. If their performances prove to be mediocre and underwhelming, it will be a 32-year drought.