Group D: Lionel Messi must carry Argentina to World Cup glory

La Albiceleste are top-heavy and dysfunctional but hold the ultimate trump card

Argentina (9-1)

Who are they?

Lionel Messi turns 31 during this summer's tournament. If he is going to emulate the great Diego Maradona by leading Argentina to World Cup glory – filling the one remaining hole in his CV in the process – then this is probably his last chance. The fact remains, however, that if Messi turns up in Russia then La Albiceleste can go all the way. They are a dysfunctional, top-heavy outfit but they are blessed with an embarrassment of attacking riches, and in Messi they have a player capable of bending the outcome of a game to his will – somebody capable of winning the tournament on his own.

Jorge Sampaoli was the third manager of the qualification campaign after Gerardo Martin resigned and Edgardo Bauza was sacked after eight months. His squad is distinctly lacking in balance, meaning he will have little choice but let his forward line off the leash and look to outscore the opposition. Indeed, as well as Messi he is able to call upon Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Paulo Dybala. Mauro Icardi, who scored 28 goals in Serie A this term, misses out – a decision perhaps influenced by Messi, who reportedly doesn't get on with the Internazionale captain. However, Argentina's midfield and defence leaves a lot to be desired – Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano are both past their best, while Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo isn't a potential pairing to fill you with confidence. An injury to goalkeeper Sergio Romero is also a blow.

World Cup moment

Argentina have won the tournament twice, their first coming in 1978, but the Maradona-inspired victory in 1986 is the most iconic. Maradona was in his pomp in Mexico, scoring five times as he captained Argentina to glory. His most memorable and infamous moments came against England in the quarter-final, with the Hand of God followed by arguably the best goal ever scored at the tournament.

How did they get here?

Argentina finished third in the CONMEBOL qualification group but were only two points clear of sixth place Chile, who missed out. There were some poor results – defeats at home to Ecuador and Paraguay, and a 3-0 loss in Brazil – but a stunning Messi hat-trick away to Ecuador secured their place in Russia.


The gaffer

Jorge Sampaoli enjoyed a successful four-year spell as manager of Chile – guiding them to the 2015 Copa America – before a short spell as Sevilla manager. He has consistently chopped and changed since taking over with Argentina and needs to settle on a team and a system for Russia.

The main man

Argentina’s hopes hang on Lionel Messi. If he has the summer of his life, then there is a good chance he will be lifting the World Cup.

One to watch

Off field problems saw Paulo Dybala stall at times this season but he still scored 22 goals in Serie A for Juventus. At 24, he is the long-term heir to Messi’s throne.

The verdict

Argentina are vulnerable but should top Group D and make it into the quarter-finals where they would likely face Spain. Unless Messi beats Spain by himself, a last eight exit is likely.

The squad

Goalkeepers: Wilfredo Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres UANL)

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon).

Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Angel di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden

Patrick Madden is a former sports journalist with The Irish Times