Sometimes predecessors set the bar for success at an incredibly high level. Look at Diego Maradona and Argentina’s 1986 World Cup squad. When the Argentine national team is mentioned, that tournament-winning side is the first thought that pops into everyone’s minds.
Lionel Messi has dealt with this immense pressure for more than a decade. Until he can achieve sport’s ultimate prize, winning the World Cup, Messi’s countrymen will be left wondering if he can ever eclipse Maradona.
However, this intense scrutiny isn’t normal unless you’re familiar with South America’s love for the sport. As passionate as South Americans, especially Argentines, can be for soccer, the media is equally maniacal. With Messi turning 31 on June 24, and an aging squad accompanying him to Russia, there is a feeling that it’s now or never for Argentina.
The road to Russia was anything but smooth. Argentina started qualifying with Gerardo Martino as manager, but after failing to win Copa America Centenario – the country’s third loss in as many years in a major final – Martino stepped down. La Albiceleste had four wins from their first eight World Cup qualifiers and were very unconvincing, scoring just nine goals in those games.
Edgardo Bauza replaced the outgoing Martino to little success. He accrued just two victories in six qualifiers, which left Argentina in fifth place and in serious danger of missing the World Cup. Meanwhile, the media was taking no prisoners. Journalists lambasted the team after a 3-0 loss in Brazil and wanted answers. The outrage was so intense that Messi and the players declared a media boycott. A sensational report about Ezequiel Lavezzi smoking marijuana after training eventually forced the team to speak up.
With Argentina in a precarious situation, Jorge Sampaoli was brought in to right the sinking ship. The manager who transformed the Chilean national team, culminating in winning the 2015 Copa America on home soil, provided a temporary injection of confidence. Unfortunately for Sampaoli, many players were underachieving and there was still a heavy dependence on Messi to guide the attack. In a 0-0 draw with Uruguay, players could be seen standing around watching the little genius try to manoeuvre through an impenetrable defence.
Sampaoli tried everything. He switched from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1, added younger domestic-based players to the squad and even brought back the frozen-out Mauro Icardi. Draws with Venezuela and Peru followed the scoreless affair with Uruguay and left Argentina in sixth place, outside of the qualifying spots. That meant a win versus Ecuador in the high altitude of Quito was a must.
Thankfully for the country’s police, Messi’s brilliance guided Argentina to a vital 3-1 win at Ecuador to automatically qualify for the World Cup.
However, the relief was short-lived for Sampaoli. A 6-1 thrashing by Spain, without Messi, created mass hysteria. Luckily for the 60-year-old tactician, he’s received backing from the federation and has settled on an experienced squad that should lead to a respectable finish in Russia.
The problem is, Argentines – especially the media – aren’t satisfied with a decent showing at the World Cup. The expectation is to win. There is no consolation prize. That is why Sampaoli’s decision to take the job at the height of this stressful situation is both admirable and ludicrous.
It is understandable that winning is seen as the only option because anything less could lead to a defeatist attitude. But there is a difference between realism and fanaticism.
This current squad is one of the oldest sides at the World Cup. Only Iceland, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, Panama and Costa Rica have a higher average age than Argentina. The Argentines are very thin on holding midfielders. The aging Javier Mascherano may not have the legs to play every four or five days, while Lucas Biglia dealt with a niggling back injury towards the end of the Serie A season.
The defence isn’t the best, either. Nicolas Otamendi, while outstanding with Manchester City this past season, has been inconsistent with Argentina. The same can be said about Marcos Rojo and Gabriel Mercardo. Federico Fazio was brilliant with AS Roma, although his lack of pace makes him error-prone in a back four compared to a back three when he doesn’t have as much ground to cover.
The bright side for Sampaoli is he’s settled on a 4-2-3-1 that lines up as a 2-3-3-2 when attacking. Having up to six players in advanced positions means the opposing midfield and defence will be swarmed. That, in turn, leads to turnovers and scoring chances.
However, Sampaoli’s squad selection indicates that he’s playing it safe at this World Cup. He spent months watching Racing Club’s 20-year-old striker Lautaro Martinez, who bagged a hat trick in the Copa Libertadores with the Argentina coach in attendance, only to be left off the World Cup roster.
Argentine Football Association president Claudio Tapia stated the coach has a contract for five years and wants a long-term plan implemented. Barring an elimination in the group stage in Russia, Sampaoli is safe. Therefore, it’s easy to see why he chose this group of players. He doesn’t want to make too many drastic changes before a major tournament, especially with Messi still in his prime.
There are still a couple of intriguing youngsters to watch, such as Boca Juniors winger Cristian Pavon. He linked up well with Messi in a recent 4-0 win over Haiti. That sort of chemistry will be vital if Argentina wants to return to the World Cup final for a second straight time.
For the sake of Sampaoli’s sanity, he’ll be hoping that chemistry leads into Argentina’s World Cup opener on June 16 versus Iceland and beyond.