Two-time World Cup champions Argentina start as favourites in Group D at Russia 2018 as they look to go one better than their runners-up spot four years ago. The Argentineans will face Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria in a group they are expected to top.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Argentina needed a hat-trick from Lionel Messi in the final game of the South American qualifying section to secure their place in the World Cup finals as they came from a goal down in the first minute to win 3-1 in Ecuador.
Though they ultimately finished third in the group, had they lost in Ecuador they would have finished sixth and been eliminated, despite having started qualification as the top-ranked team in the world. The Argentines' biggest issue was scoring goals - they drew blanks in six of their 18 matches, and scored just 19 in total. Messi actually scored seven of those 19 goals too, to finish as second-top scorer in the South American section - no other Argentine scored more than two.
Nevertheless, it was not until a shock defeat in Bolivia, followed by three consecutive draws, that Argentina looked in danger of not qualifying - before Messi's heroics in the final round of fixtures rescued them.
Two-time winners, in 1978 and 1986, Argentina were runners-up in Germany four years ago despite Lionel Messi winning the golden ball award for Player of the Tournament. Messi scored four goals in the tournament and is now five behind Gabriel Batistuta's national-record ten at World Cups for Argentina.
While Messi was impressing up front, meanwhile, Alejandro Sabella's side also performed well defensively - Mario Gotze's World Cup-winning goal was actually the first they conceded in the knockout stages.
Despite knee and back injuries respectively, Sergio Aguero and Lucas Biglia have been deemed enough to make Argentina’s final 23-man squad for the World Cup. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero misses out, however – the veteran keeper was named in the Jorge Sampaoli’s squad but then missed Manchester United’s FA Cup Final and was cut from the Argentina line-up through injury. His place in the squad is taken by UANL keeper Nahuel Guzman, who will now compete with Willy Caballero and uncapped River Plate stopper Franco Armani for a starting place.
Also missing out through injury are Fernando Gago and Dario Benedetto, while Ramiro Funes Mori's return to fitness – despite Argentina’s defensive woes – came too late to force is way in. Gabriel Mercado and Marcos Rojo are both fit in defence, however. Mauro Icardi’s superb domestic season was not enough to force his way into the squad up front – despite being named in the 35-man longlist – but Paolo Dybala is included up front. River midfielder Enzo Perez was another experienced player cut from the preliminary squad, but he was recalled when Manuel Lanzini suffered an ACL injury in training and missed the World Cup.
Voted player of the tournament at the last World Cup, Lionel Messi will still feel he has something to prove at Russia 2018 as he desperately looks to add a World Cup trophy to his glistening list of football achievements. A stunning season for Barcelona has certainly set the tone, fittingly scoring a hat-trick as they sealed the La Liga title with victory at Deportivo La Coruna. He also scored a hat-trick to send Argentina to the World Cup in the first place, grabbing all three goals in the crucial win against Ecuador, and added another in Argentina’s 4-0 friendly defeat of Haiti. Sergio Aguero scored his 37th international goal in that game, marking his comeback from injury in style, while Gonzalo Higuain has also passed 30 in Argentina colours. Creativity is supplied by the likes of PSG winger Angel di Maria, who is closing in on 100 international caps.
W L W L W
Since securing their place at the World Cup with a 3-1 win in Ecuador, thanks to Lionel Messi’s hat-trick, Argentina have suffered mixed fortunes in their subsequent friendlies. They beat out-of-form World Cup hosts Russia in Moscow thanks to Sergio Aguero’s late goal, but then blew a 2-0 lead in a 4-2 defeat to Nigeria. That was followed by a 2-0 win against Italy at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, but then came the morale-destroying 6-1 defeat to Spain in Madrid. They restored some pride with a 4-0 win against minnows Haiti in Buenos Aires last time out, however – Messi again scoring a hat-trick, and Aguero adding the fourth.
|1||Nahuel Guzman (UANL)||32||6 caps||0 goals|
|12||Franco Armani (River Plate)||31||0 caps||0 goals|
|23||Willy Caballero (Chelsea)||36||3 caps||0 goals|
|2||Gabriel Mercardo (Sevilla)||31||20 caps||3 goals|
|3||Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax)||25||4 caps||0 goals|
|4||Cristian Ansaldi (Torino)||31||5 caps||1 goal|
|6||Federico Fazio (Roma)||31||9 caps||1 goal|
|8||Marcos Acuna (Sporting)||26||10 caps||0 goals|
|16||Marcos Rojo (Manchester United)||28||56 caps||2 goals|
|17||Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City)||30||54 caps||4 goals|
|5||Lucas Biglia (Milan)||32||57 caps||1 goal|
|7||Ever Banega (Sevilla)||29||62 caps||6 goals|
|11||Angel di Maria (Paris Saint Germain)||30||94 caps||19 goals|
|13||Maximiliano Meza (Independiente)||26||2 caps||0 goals|
|14||Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune)||33||143 caps||3 goals|
|15||Enzo Perez (River Plate)||32||23 caps||1 goal|
|18||Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)||27||9 caps||0 goals|
|20||Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint Germain)||22||5 caps||0 goals|
|22||Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors)||22||5 caps||0 goals|
|9||Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)||30||71 caps||31 goals|
|10||Lionel Messi (Barcelona)||30||124 caps||64 goals|
|19||Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)||30||85 caps||37 goals|
|21||Paulo Dybala (Juventus)||24||12 caps||0 goals|
Despite their reputation, and the presence of Lionel Messi, Argentina are not the force they once were - they scraped through to the World Cup and have failed to impress in their recent friendlies because of their porous defence.
Their attacking depth of talent is unquestionable – even if Sergio Aguero struggles to regain fitness, the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Angel di Maria will join Messi in Russia – but their defence has struggled.
Nevertheless, and despite losing to Group D opponents Nigeria in one of their recent friendlies, Argentina will still expect to have little problem getting out of the group.
Messi's telling impact in the crucial qualifier against Ecuador showed how he can drag his international team-mates out of trouble and they are 8/13 to win Group D with Bet365, which with Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland as opponents they really should be doing.
Should they do so, they would likely have to play whoever finishes second behind France in Group C - Denmark are favourites, ahead of Peru and Australia.
Again, that should pose little trouble and so a quarter-final place, despite their poor form, looks very much on the cards for Jorge Sampaoli’s side. It is why they are just 4/6 with Bet365 to get to the last eight.
There, however, is where their look runs out - Argentina's likely opponents in the quarter-finals will be Spain, bringing back painful memories of March's 6-1 friendly drubbing. Of course, the World Cup will be a matter - Messi will be back, for starters - but it shows Spain's superiority over Argentina. If not Spain, meanwhile, it will probably be European champions Portugal awaiting - and a potential Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo battle. Away from the top stars, however, and looking at the form book, that too will only be going the way of the Europeans.
Surprisingly, therefore, you can back Argentina to be eliminated in the quarter-finals at a generous 11/4 with Bet365.
While their recent form has been poor to say the least, and they only just squeezed through qualifying, Argentina will still expect to get through the group stage as Group D winners, and progress to the quarter-finals at least. Unfortunately for them, it could well be Spain awaiting at that stage – enough to give the Argentinean defence nightmares after their crushing friendly defeat.
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Complete list of 32 teams participating in World Cup 2018 and their Group Predictions