Jorge Sampaoli has had to chop and change in order to finalise his 23-man squad. But, will the controversial choices pay off for Argentina at the FIFA World Cup 2018?

Argentina endured a heartbreak in the 2014 edition, losing to Germany in extra-time in the final of the competition. And while the South American giants were expected to be at the World Cup in Russia, they were made to work for it in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, more than what everyone had expected.

Argentina’s World Cup qualification was thought to be in real danger, with the Football Association changing head coaches in the middle of the qualifiers. Jorge Sampaoli was appointed, but even he seemed to be unable to bring the misfiring stars back into form as the chances seemed to be slipping away.

Needing a win in the final game to ensure their place in the 2018 World Cup, Lionel Messi stepped up with a hat-trick to not only register the win over Ecuador, where the nation had not won for over a decade, but also confirm Argentina’s participation in the 2018 World Cup.

With Argentina now all set and ready to go one step further than the 2014 edition, we take a closer look at the team, the manager, the tactics and the nation’s chances of making it big in Russia.

Group and Fixtures

Argentina have been placed in a tricky Group D and will have to be wary of the threat posed by other teams. They will start their campaign against an Iceland side that has continued their steady rise in world football. La Albiceleste will then face off against the second highest ranked nation in the Group in Croatia before rounding out the group matches against Nigeria.

Nigeria may be the lowest ranked team in the group, placed at 48th in the FIFA World Rankings. But, the Super Eagles are likely to be the strongest contender that Argentina will have to face in the Group Stage.

The Squad

Initially picking a 35-man preliminary squad, Sampaoli closed in on the final 23-man squad for the World Cup, but not without his fair share of problems.

Goalkeepers: Nahuel Guzman, Franco Armani, Willy Caballero

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado, Nicolas Tagliafico, Cristian Ansaldi, Federico Fazio, Marcos Acuna, Javier Mascherano, Marcos Rojo, Nicolas Otamendi, Eduardo Salvio

Midfielders: Lucas Biglia, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria, Maximiliano Meza, Enzo Perez, Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Pavon

Forwards: Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala

A potential breakout star? (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)
A potential breakout star? (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

There were quite a few surprise inclusions and exclusions by Jorge Sampaoli for the World Cup squad. Mauro Icardi was excluded from the 23-man squad despite having a good season with Inter Milan at the club level. That the striker pointed out a certain man within the squad as the reason for his exclusion did not help Argentina’s cause either.

If that wasn’t it, Sergio Romero was ruled out due to injury and was replaced within the squad by Nahuel Guzman. Again, the Manchester United goalkeeper also accused the Argentine FA, stating that the injury was not serious and he would have been fit way before the start of the World Cup. The stopper also credited his exclusion to certain members of the squad.

The last exclusion was pure heartbreak. Manuel Lanzini was ruled out of the World Cup due to an injury and the distraught West Ham United playmaker was replaced within the squad by Enzo Perez, which was another shock as Erik Lamela was thought to be the one in line to replace Lanzini.

Javier Pastore did not even make the preliminary squad but perhaps deservedly so, given his lack of appearances and form at club level. Another surprise exclusion was Geronimo Rulli, who was expected to make the cut but was excluded from the final 23-man squad.

The squad still looks strong on paper, with young guns Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Pavon being the wildcards. The goalkeeping area is the only concern, where Jorge Sampaoli will have to decide, likely between the cultured Willy Caballero and Nahuel Guzman for the post.

The Manager

A huge responsibility on his shoulders. (Picture Courtesy - AFP/Getty Images)
A huge responsibility on his shoulders. (Picture Courtesy – AFP/Getty Images)

Jorge Sampaoli took over the managerial reins of the Argentina National Football Team in May, 2017 amidst a turbulent time for the nation in terms of football. The manager came into the job on the back of a successful campaign with Sevilla, leading them to qualification for the UEFA Champions League, before leaving the club for the national post.

Sampaoli shot to fame during his stint as the manager of the Chilean National Football Team, with the Argentine leading Chile to the Copa America title in 2015 while also being named the South American manager of the Year and the IFFHS Best National Coach of the Year in the same year.

Sampaoli experimented several formations upon becoming the Head Coach of Argentina. While the 3-4-2-1 was a popular lineup, it failed to inspire the players to better attacking results. Enter 2018 and Sampaoli decided to switch to a 4-2-3-1 and the formation has stayed ever since.

If the friendlies and recent matches are anything to go by, the 4-2-3-1 is here to stay and we might just see Sampaoli prefer Caballero over Guzman. Federico Fazio and Nicolas Otamendi are likely to be the central defensive pairing, with Marcos Rojo likely to be on the bench.

Rojo could be called into action, should Sampaoli revert to a three-man defence. Gabriel Mercado is the only natural right-back in the squad and should start, with Eduardo Salvio acting as his deputy while the left side of the defence should be guarded by Nicolas Tagliafico, who has had a good domestic season with Ajax.

Javier Mascherano will be the focal point of the midfield and he should be partnered with Lucas Biglia at the base of the 4-2-3-1, with Lo Celso an outside bet. Lionel Messi will act as the number 10 in a Trequartista role, with Angel Di Maria on the left.

The spot on the right is up for grabs, with Cristian Pavon and Eduardo Salvio the likely options. Pavon has really come into his own for the national side and has impressed Messi & co. with his ability. The Boca Juniors youngster should ideally start on the right.

Alternatively, Sampaoli could start Paulo Dybala on the right in order to fit all the attackers in the system. Sampaoli will have Gonzalo Higuain, Dybala and Sergio Aguero to choose from. If fit, Aguero should be the automatic choice to start, with Higuain not embodying a player in form.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Caballero; Mercado, Otamendi, Fazio, Tagliafico; Biglia, Mascherano; Pavon, Messi, Di Maria; Aguero

THT Verdict

A team that has more than an entire nation’s support at the World Cup, with this likely to be the last World Cup with Messi at full power. The Barcelona superstar led the nation capably to the World Cup and would be eager to get his hands on an international trophy, the only thing missing in his cabinet.

Anything less than the semi-finals will be chalked down as a disappointment. But, given the inconsistent form that the players have shown, it would not be too much of a surprise if Argentine did bow out early, especially with the group that they have been placed in.

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