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The two-time winners topped the South American qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and, as ever, will go into the tournament as one of the favourites. An Albiceleste victory on Brazilian soil would be the perfect way to rub salt into the wounds of the hosts and Alejandro Sabella’s men will be desperate to repeat the feats of ’78 and ’86.
Argentina’s preferred formation is a fluid 4-3-3, all geared around getting the best out of their talismanic captain Lionel Messi. Though he can adopt the same false 9 position as with Barcelona, Messi usually begins on the right of an interchangeable front three with Gonzalo Higuain occupying a more traditional central striker role and Sergio Aguero on the left.
The preferred midfield trio usually consists of Mascherano as the deep lying guard dog shielding the back four and dropping back when needed, Fernando Gago to the right linking defence and attack and to the left Angel di Maria bombing forward with his lung-busting energy.
Sergio Romero will start in goal while Sabella favours the Garay-Fernandez centre back partnership with Pablo Zabaleta at right back and Marcos Rojo on the left. However, the pragmatic Sabella has experimented with 5-3-2 and 4-4-2, conscious of the need for a Plan B should he come up against difficult opponents or if, god forbid, he loses Messi.
The Albiceleste’s great strength lies in an irresistible strikeforce that boasts arguably the best player in the world. Understandably there is tendency to focus around Messi but Aguero and Higuain are world class partners in crime, while Lavezzi and Palacio are more than able deputies. With Angel di Maria joining from midfield, they have an unrivalled attacking quartet.
However, there is a danger that Argentina are somewhat top heavy and can leave an unconvincing defence exposed. Although they had the second best defensive record in qualifying, there are legitimate doubts about their back four, especially left back Marcos Rojo. Indeed, bar the consistently excellent Pablo Zabaleta, there is a real lack of quality at full back and the flanks are an area which teams will look to target on the break. Another worry is the lack of game time that first choice Sergio Romero has had at Monaco this season.
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Nevertheless, aside from their goal scoring prowess, all of their forward players are more than willing to do the hard yards and press to make attack the first line of defence. This should alleviate some of the pressure on their fallible backline.
In terms of style, Argentina normally enjoy the majority of possession but with the talent at their disposal there is also an inevitable focus on quick, direct attack as they will always fancy their chances of outscoring opposition. However, unlike Maradona’s frenzied reign, Sabella is not so naïve that he believes he can steamroll all before him and against stronger opponents expect a slightly more cautious, counter-attacking approach.
Lionel Messi | Without wanting to state the obvious, Argentina’s key man is clearly Lionel Messi and the hopes of a nation at the World Cup will be placed well and firmly on his shoulders. One of Sabella’s major achievements has been finding a system that brings the best out of Messi for the national team and in qualifying the magician was in fine fettle, netting 10 times in 12 games. A dip in club form has been a slight worry but all eyes will be on Leo to inspire Argentina to a third title.
Fernando Gago | Crucial to Messi’s effectiveness has been Fernando Gago. On the right side of midfield, the two have formed an important link and, along with Pablo Zabaleta’s overlapping runs, this partnership will be crucial in Brazil. Gago too has suffered an alarming drop in form since his move to Boca last year and his back up Ever Banega hasn’t exactly pulled up trees during his six month loan at Newell’s either so it’ll be vital that he ups his game to the levels shown in qualifying.
Angel Di Maria | Finally, after Messi, the first name on the team sheet is Angel Di Maria. The Real Madrid man plays an essential role as the most creative member of the midfield and such is his energy and industry that in Argentina they claim he has a third lung. Sabella will be desperate that ‘Fideo’ shakes off a groin injury in time for the opening game v Bosnia & Herzegovina.
As Sabella’s 30 man provisional squad doesn’t include any players aged 22 or under, there are not really any youngsters per se to watch out for. Just missing the final cut, 24-year-old Lisandro Lopez is a promising goal-scoring centre back who has been on loan at Getafe this season after moving to Benfica from Arsenal de Sarandi in the summer. With the likes of Peruzzi, Lamela and Icardi all also missing out, Marcos Rojo, also 24, will probably be the key ‘young’ player by default and it could be his big opportunity to prove his critics wrong.