Tuesday, July 14, 2020

SPORTS | 02-06-2018 10:50

No guarantees for Argentina in testing Group D

Without Messi, would Argentina even be going to the World Cup?

Four years after narrowly missing out on football’s grandest prize, global superstar Lionel Messi returns for what is likely his last shot at lifting the World Cup.

We should remember that the Albiceleste’s turbulent qualifying campaign was rescued by a Messi hat-trick in the thin air of Quito, but there is little margin for error in a challenging group featuring Croatia, Nigeria and tournament debutants Iceland.

Without Messi, would Argentina even be going to the World Cup? The team’s destiny is more closely tied to the Barcelona forward than ever beforeand there are plenty of doubts for coach Jorge Sampaoli ahead of the tournament in Russia.

Defender Javier Mascherano is reaching the end of his career, while striker Sergio Agüero and midfielder Lucas Biglia both experienced injury problems recently. Paulo Dybala is yet to deliver for his country despite all the promise on display at Juventus.

Much of the squad also carries the burden of mass disappointment, following three successive losses in finals: the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa América and 2016 Copa América Centenario.

Despite an array of worldclass talent up front, only Bolivia scored fewer goals than Argentina in the South American World Cup qualifiers.

In total, Sampaoli’s men won just once in eight qualifiers without him and lost to both Nigeria (4-2) and Spain (6-1) in pre-tournament friendlies with Messi sidelined.

Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuaín is still an option, but he was wasteful in the three finals Argentina lost.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic spearhead a Croatian side that finished runners-up in qualifying behind Iceland – the two sides split their headto-head meetings – before overpowering Greece in the play-offs to seal a fifth finals appearance in six attempts.

Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic is the team’s primary goalscoring threat and he will have a key role to play if Croatia are to advance beyond the group stage for the first time since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup.

After successive failures to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a youthful Nigeria outfit – featuring the likes of Premier League trio Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi – reinvigorated under the experienced Gernot Rohr, punched their ticket to Russia with a game to spare.

Euro 2016 darlings Iceland proved their shock run to the quarter-finals in France – which involved eliminating England along the way – was no fluke after topping a tough qualifying section that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. With about 330,000 inhabitants, the Nordic country is comfortably the smallest to ever qualify for the tournament.

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