We are just a few days away from the FIFA World Cup 2022 to be played in Qatar, the first time the world’s biggest sporting event takes place in the middle-east. Brazil are the favorites according to the bookmakers heading into this tournament but giving tough competition will be their South American counterparts Argentina who have entered this tournament with a 35-game win streak one which includes the first COPA America win for the country in 28 years.
It’s 36 years since the late great Diego Armando Maradona lifted the famous golden FIFA World Cup trophy in front of a crowd of more than 110,000 in Mexico City. The hopes of correcting the wrongs of 2014 and 2018 are under full swing as Lionel Scaloni’s men led by their captain Lionel Messi take the field on 22nd November at the Lusail Stadium which coincidentally happens to be the venue for this year’s finals.
How has this Argentina side evolved compared to the previous two editions:
The Argentinian National Side has been blessed with some of the game’s best-attacking players namely Diego Maradona, Messi, Aguero, Batistuta, Crespo and Higuain. These individuals are the first names that pop up in football fans’ minds when they think of legendary South American forwards. To go along with these forwards we have seen Javier Zanetti, Mascherano and Walter Samuel are some of the best defensive players to put on the La Albiceleste colors.
The overachievers of 2014
The team was extremely top-heavy with a lot of great and exciting front talent and a dearth of players of similar caliber in the midfield and defense. In 2014, the side coached by Sabella were not that great despite reaching the finals. They played Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iran in Group F and scraped through in all three matches, scoring six and letting three goals. They just barely beat Switzerland and Belgium in the first two knockout games and went through to the final on penalties by beating Holland. And their issues finally caught up with them and they were beaten by the Germans with Mario Götze scoring the winning goal in extra time.
They were overachievers no doubt about it and the squad comprised of players like Martín Demichelis, Marcus Rojo and E.Garay all formed their defense alongside the superb Pablo Zabaleta whilst they had Lucas Biglia protecting the backline in front of the centre-backs, another highly uninspiring name.
Same tale, different results
Something similar happened leading up to the 2018 World Cup. At one point in time, it looked very likely that La Albiceleste would not even qualify for the World Cup but Lionel Messi secured their qualification with probably one of his displays in his entire glorious career of football by netting a hat-trick as Argentina came from behind to defeat Ecuador 3–1 away. But this win did not ensure smooth sailing in the World Cup as Jorge Sampaoli stumbled their way to the knockouts before losing to eventual winners France in the last 16 stage.
If we look at the composition of this team right from the goalkeeper to the attack we can see a lot of problems. Players devoid of quality or players which were once considered to be elite now were in the twilight years of their careers. Such was the state of this side that Messi said that he would not participate in Argentina’s friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia in September, and said that it would be unlikely that he would represent his nation for the remainder of the calendar year.
Messi’s absence from the national team and his continued failure to win a title with Argentina prompted speculation in the media that Messi might retire from international football once again as he did after the COPA America final against Chile.
Is this the best international team that Messi has been a part of?
Yes. If we have a player-to-player comparison of the previous editions, there is a clear difference in the qualities in all parts of the squad.
Emiliano Martínez has been an outstanding goalkeeper for both his club and country. He has made a big difference to this squad since he took over from his predecessor Sergio Romero who despite being excellent hardly played any club football. He was instrumental in Argentina’s COPA America triumph saving three spot kicks in a 3–2 penalty shootout victory for Argentina over Colombia in the semi-final of the tournament.
The defense has probably been the biggest area of improvement. The expected back four that will play the majority of the games in the tournament will be Nicolás Tagliafico, Lisandro Martínez, Cristian Romero & Nahuel Molina. Romero and Martinez are both front-foot defenders and will be very hard to dispose of. Both endured a good start to their seasons at Spurs and Man United. Tagliafico has been excellent since arriving in Lyon on a free transfer from AFC Ajax while has started 11 games in La Liga for Athletico Madrid.
This is a massive difference compared to players who were called in the World Cup 2018 edition which had the likes of M. Meza, F. Fazio, Enzo Perez and Christian Pavon.
Addiionally, the midfield now has players with different qualities with the likes of De Paul, Paredes, Mac Allister, Lo Celso and exciting Enzo Fernandez from SSL Benfica. The attack as we all know will be centered around the captain Lionel Messi with players like Julian Alvarez, Lautaro Martinez, Dybala, Nicolás González and Correa all ready to play. Even with the injury concerns to arguably one of Serie A’s best player, Dybala, the side won’t be affected by it and is set for a great tournament.
What makes this Argentina side the favorites?
The 2019 COPA America semifinal saw Brazil take on Argentina where the Albiceleste were comfortably the better side. 14 shots were taken with four of them hitting the target and two of those hit the woodwork while contentious penalty shouts for Otamendi and Aguero both were rejected. Against the run of play, Brazil managed to get the job done on the night and went on to lift the COPA America trophy that year, this was the last defeat that Argentina faced in an international competition, which means now it has been 1230 days since they last tasted defeat.
Critics will always point out that the quality of opposition faced by South American teams is lower than the European ones but they are blatantly mistaken. European sides have much easier and shorter runs for qualification to major tournaments while countries’ CONMEBOL qualifiers see the teams face each other both home and away (a total of 22 matches compared to Europe’s 8). Also during this incredible unbeaten run, Argentina faced Germany in a 2-2 draw, a game in which many major players were absent while they completely destroyed Italy at Wembley in the Finalissima. All the major European teams do not have momentum coming into the World Cup with teams like Germany, Denmark, Holland & Portugal have lost games in the run to the World Cup.
Their coach Lionel Scaloni
Argentina’s national setup in football has always been a bit chaotic and it was no surprise that after Jorge Sampaoli, a big rebuild was needed. In comes the unknown and inexperienced Lionel Scaloni, who was the assistant to Jorge at Sevilla and the national side. Scaloni had a decent playing career turning for the 1999-2000 Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruna and had spells at West Ham United and Lazio but had no experience in management and it was big risk at the time as managers like Mauricio Pochettino, Gallardo and Simeone all were linked to the job.
He has managed to overlook a full transition to this team in four years of time bringing in many young players while also managing his stars very well. His command over his dressing room was immense with De Paul saying to the media one time,
“Scaloni could convince us of anything. Obviously, one is convinced when things [like the Copa America] happen. He is very detailed and, because of how he prepares matches and tactical work, everything ends up happening. If it’s 10 in the morning and he says ‘good night’, then it’s night for us.”
A favorable draw
Last edition saw Messi’s side placed in Group D with Croatia, the eventual runners-up and then somehow finishing second in the group, they faced France in arguably the best game of the entire tournament which the side lost 4-3. But time around Argentina are placed in a group with Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Poland.
Despite being unbeaten in the last four games Saudi Arabia falls short in quality while Poland despite having Matty Cash, Wojciech Szczęsny, Arkadiusz Milik, Piotr Zieliński and of course Robert Lewandowski will pose a threat to Argentinians but as history indicates Poland do not do well on the big stage. Mexico are possibly their biggest threat in this group but again history tells us that Argentina have come out on top with one loss in nine matches.
If they go ahead as group winners then they face one of Australia, Tunisia and Denmark out of which Denmark will cause some real trouble due to the quality and momentum they have built on the back of a successful EURO 2020. Overcoming the Danish challenge sees them face Holland or Senegal which Argentina came easily overcome.
But the semifinals is the place where Messi and his teammates will be given a good run for their money and if no upsets happen then they face their South American rivals, Brazil.
The MESSI factor
While all the teams will come well-prepared for this tournament and ready to have answers for every single challenge, Argentina have a cheat code of a player named Lionel Messi. Arguably one of the greatest players ever to play the beautiful game will play his last World Cup for his country and a win would clearly conclude that he is the greatest of all time.
A lot has happened for Messi since he last played in the 2018 World Cup. He was forced to leave his boyhood club 22 years after winning his first major international honor and had a slow start to life in Paris. But all looks good in the hood for Leo, as at the time of writing he has contributed to 25 goals and assists with a major chunk of the season still to go. He will need his teammates to help him out in the knockout games where he does not have a particularly good record.
Casuals like to question Messi’s GOAT status by comparing him to Maradona and Pele, both of whom have delivered in the World Cups and a win in Qatar will end all doubts as well.
Argentina 2022 World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Emiliano Martinez, Franco Armani, Geronimo Rulli.
Defenders: Gonzalo Montiel, Nahuel Molina, German Pezzella, Cristian Romero, Nicolas Otamendi, Lisandro Martinez, Juan Foyth, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna.
Midfielders: Leandro Paredes, Guido Rodriguez, Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo De Paul, Exequiel Palacios, Alejandro Gomez, Alexis Mac Allister.
Forwards: Paulo Dybala, Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Nicolas Gonzalez, Joaquin Correa, Lautaro Martinez, Julian Alvarez.