Redemption in Russia: Argentina/Group D

Group D: Final chance for atonement for Messi and Argentina

Lionel Messi leaving Haiti players in his wake as he scored a hat-trick in a World Cup warm-up match on Tuesday. The star striker has not won a major trophy with Argentina despite reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2007
Lionel Messi leaving Haiti players in his wake as he scored a hat-trick in a World Cup warm-up match on Tuesday. The star striker has not won a major trophy with Argentina despite reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Messi will need strong but ageing supporting cast to step up for the perennial runners-up

Five Ballon d'Ors, four Champions League titles, nine Spanish league medals and millions of fans.

For all that Barcelona's Lionel Messi has won, a major trophy with Argentina is not among them despite reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the Copa America in 2007, 2015 and 2016.

It is an anomaly to Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli.

"Messi does not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owes the World Cup to Messi," he told his players, then the media, on Oct 10 last year. That was the day Messi scored a hat-trick to lead his country past Ecuador 3-1 in their must-win final qualifier.

He had to earn the chance to fight for the prize he covets the most. And, if qualifying is any indication, there is plenty of hard work still to be done by Messi and Co to lift the Fifa World Cup trophy.

Sampaoli was La Albiceleste's third coach during qualifying and, while he has been at the helm for a year, he has yet to figure out his best XI or formation - 11 different starting line-ups in 11 games.

 

An embarrassment of riches up front saw him exclude last season's Serie A joint-top scorer, Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan, from his squad - with Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero getting the nod alongside Messi.

 

Yet Argentina scored only 19 goals in 18 qualifiers, with seven coming from Messi, their only scorer in competitive games during the Sampaoli era. Only Bolivia netted fewer times in South American qualifying.

In Russia, Argentina will again be relying on the creativity of Angel di Maria to supply the ammunition for their forwards.

Their June 16 opener against Iceland should provide a litmus test of their ability to break down organised, disciplined and compact sides.

The biggest concern, however, lies in defence, particularly the last line after Sergio Romero was ruled out with a knee injury.

The Manchester United back-up, widely expected to be Argentina's first-choice goalkeeper despite starting only once in the English Premier League last season, has been replaced by Nahuel Guzman.

  • Argentina

    KEY MAN: LIONEL MESSI

    In between the Croatia and Nigeria games, Messi will turn 31. Whether he can ultimately grant a nation's wish will depend on how much help he gets from his support cast. But he also needs to find his first World Cup goals in the knockout stages. He has five goals from 15 games but they have all come in group games.

    MANAGER: Jorge Sampaoli

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 17

    BEST RESULT: Champions (1978, 1986)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Runners-up



    Iceland

    KEY MAN: GYLFI SIGURDSSON

    Before this morning's (Singapore time) friendly against Norway, Sigurdsson has not played since March due to a knee injury. But he remains World Cup-bound and will be crucial to Iceland's ability to offer more as an attacking force. The Everton midfielder is a potent set-piece taker and some of Iceland's best chances are expected to come from dead-ball situations.

    MANAGER: Heimir Hallgrimsson

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 1

    BEST RESULT: Nil

     2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify



    Croatia

    KEY MAN: LUKA MODRIC

    The playmaker, with more licence to push forward than when he is in a Real Madrid shirt, will be relied upon to unlock defences with his vision and passing. Alongside club-mate Mateo Kovacic, Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic and Inter Milan duo Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic, Croatia should win most midfield battles.

    MANAGER: Zlatko Dalic

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Third (1998)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Group stage



    Nigeria

    KEY MAN: VICTOR MOSES

    He won the FA Cup with Chelsea last month as a wing-back but tends to be employed in a more attacking role when he plays for his country. Packed with power and pace, Moses was Nigeria's top scorer in the third round of African qualifying with three goals.

    MANAGER: Gernot Rohr

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 6

    BEST RESULT: Last 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Round of 16


    KEY MATCH

    Argentina v Croatia (June 22, 2am)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    In 2006, Croatia's Josip Simunic received three yellow cards from English referee Graham Poll in their group game against Australia. He is the first and only player to be booked three times in World Cup history.

Chelsea's reserve stopper Willy Caballero and River Plate's Franco Armani, uncapped when he was announced in the squad, are fighting for the No. 1 jersey.

The only two editions when a River Plate goalkeeper was a starter at the World Cup - Ubaldo Fillol in 1978 and Nery Pumpido in 1986 - they won the title. But even the most superstitious of fans may find it hard to be optimistic about the Romero blow.

Whoever starts in goal is expected to be busy. Sampaoli likes to play a high-pressing, attacking style and prefers a back three that holds a high defensive line. But his ageing central defenders - Nicolas Otamendi, 30, Federico Fazio, 31, and the 33-year-old Javier Mascherano, whom Sampaoli has also used in midfield - lack pace.

Otamendi's form has at least improved greatly under Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola last season; his defensive solidity as well as his ability to play out from the back will be key.

He is one of 11 players from the 2016 Copa America squad who will be at the World Cup.

Like Mascherano, Higuain, 30, di Maria, 30, Gabriel Mercado, 31, and Messi, 30, Russia is likely to lead to redemption or retirement.

"People are waiting for this group to leave because it has not won for a long time and those who criticise get tired of always seeing the same faces," Messi, who briefly retired from international football after the 2016 Copa final defeat by Chile on penalties, said in December. "I think it's the last opportunity for this group. There is a lot of excitement.

"If we do badly, the entire national team will have to disappear. It's going to be very difficult for anyone to continue because we have already been here for a number of years."

The alternative outcome for Messi is a complete resume. Perhaps all his sweat and tears will finally pay off.


Talking points

CAN ICELAND CONTINUE TO SURPRISE?

The Nordic nation stunned the football world when they marked their European Championship debut with a run to the quarter-finals in 2016. With a population of 340,000, they continued to defy the odds by becoming the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup. A spirited team who are greater than the sum of their parts, Iceland have proven they cannot be written off.

CAN GOLDEN GENERATION MATCH CROATIA CLASS OF '98?

Luka Modric, 32, Mario Mandzukic, 32, Ivan Rakitic, 30, Ivan Perisic, 29, Danijel Subasic, 33, and Vedran Corluka, 32, could all be playing in their last World Cup. They could not have been placed in a tougher group and would do well to equal the feat of Davor Suker and Co, who finished third in France 1998.

FIFTH-TIME LUCKY FOR NIGERIA?

Nigeria and Argentina will meet at the Finals for a fifth time. The Super Eagles have lost all four meetings - 2-1 in 1994, 1-0 in 2002, 1-0 in 2010 and 3-2 in 2014.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Final chance for atonement'. Print Edition | Subscribe