There may be no team in recent memory who have been given less respect coming into the next go around as the Argentine have; and maybe for good reason. While they finished 3rd place in South American qualifying, (behind Brazil by a fair margin & Uruguay), they have stumbled astonishingly in recent friendlies. Although Spain thrashed them 6-1 without Lionel Messi, the more worrying instance may be a 4-1 loss against Group D opponent Nigeria. The Nigerians do possess their fair share of world-class talent, but that was on another level.
Who to watch?
Lionel Messi (F): There’s not much to say here that hasn’t been said before, but to leave him out would be a travesty. He’s the heart of the club, the engine, and the best player in the world. Arguably the best player to ever take part in the sport. He won’t be playing solely as a striker in Russia, but instead take the position he does with Barcelona as more of a playmaker who finishes. He will need to take his game, as well as his teammates, to another level in every match if they have any hope of hoisting the grail.
Paolo Dybala (S): It’s been reported that the Juventus striker won’t be getting the start in Argentina’s first match against Iceland, but I have a feeling it won’t take long for that to change. With Gonzalo Higuain’s apparent inability to perform for his country, look for Dybala to be paired with Sergio Aguero up front with Messi supporting just behind. Dybala will be the youngest up front, but certainly had his fair share of experience in Champions League against the world’s best and won’t be intimidated at all.
Angel di Maria (M): Once a highly sought-after player who was instrumental on successful Real Madrid squads, he’s fallen out of headlines as his performance has taken a tumble. His is not a name you hear much anymore when this group is touted. Despite this fact, I still believe he’s a great player and will use this tournament to remind everyone of that. He can still take the ball down the wing and get blistering crosses in, and can use his speed in conjunction with Messi’s in the middle.
The critics tearing down Argentina before they even start aren’t entirely off-base, but at the same time I still feel they possess the goods to bring home the glory. It won’t be easy though. They will need their stars to be the stars of the tournament, and that means goals, goals, and more goals. They can’t depend on defense as, let’s be honest, it’s almost non-existent. The only way they make it anywhere is if Messi is Messi every minute he’s on the pitch, Dybala plays like a critical veteran, and Aguero can stay healthy long enough to pot a couple goals.