Lionel Messi is lifted by his teammates

The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar is not far away and every week we will decode and decipher a team to evaluate it’s chances of winning the biggest prize in world football. This week, we look at Argentina, who in no uncertain terms, are dark horses for the World Cup.

Julian Alvarez believes football owes Lionel Messi a World Cup. Does it, really? Maybe, it does.

Last summer, Argentina lifted the prestigious Copa America for the first time in 28 years. Having finished runners up twice over the previous 3 competitions, a dark feeling had sunk in that it just wasn’t meant to be. But somehow, La Albiceleste found a spark and went on a crazy run, eventually surmounting the ever-present Brazil in the final.

A year has passed, and quite staggeringly, Argentina remain undefeated in 33 games, winning 24 of them. Just a few days ago, they defeated Italy in the Finalissima to clinch yet another major honor (yes, you can call it Mickey Mouse medal or a fake trophy but it still remains a trophy). We didn’t attach too much meaning to it either; however, there is a larger story that needs to be entertained in the least, if not dissected and obsessed over like Jack ‘Gucci’ Grealish’s hair.

International football, which is often the poorer and much inferior sibling of club football, started in its corridors surrounding murmuring about the possibility of the successor of Jules Rimet trophy finally making its way to Buenos Aires after 1986.

When Lionel Messi kicks a football in the blue and white of Argentina on his torso, there firmly lies a metaphorical albatross around his neck that is a rather unfortunate combination of the Diego Maradona faithful, critics, detractors and those who simply find him ‘overrated’ (yes, don’t rub your eyes in disbelief, there are those whose magical eyes are impervious to Messi magic).

I personally believe that if Lionel Messi doesn’t win the World Cup in Qatar, it would be the trophy’s misfortune to be held by him. However, for the sake of neutrality and doing the right thing, I will take your ‘he must win the world cup to be the GOAT’ (though he doesn’t) argument.

So, are Argentina genuine contenders for Qatar 2022? Does this unbeaten streak of 33 games even mean anything? I will try and evaluate it for you (apologies in advance for a lot of Messi mentions).

Messi. Magic. Manifestation

It’s no surprise that at the heart of Argentina’s resurgence to the top of international football is the magician himself, Lionel Messi. Argentina’s record goal scorer has been pivotal in their string of great performances, not only scoring goals, but orchestrating play as well.

Contrary to popular belief, Messi’s performances for Argentina, in spirit, suggest as if he wants to grab them by the scruff of their necks, drag them from international oblivions to the top shelf of football.

After coming heartbreakingly close in 2014, Messi will be determined to bring the trophy home, and, unlike the situation in 2014 when he practically carried his side to the final, Argentina’s captain now has squad of improved players to back him. The current crop of Argentinian players is one of the best we’ve seen in a long time, not only in terms of their ability, but also in terms of the passion they demonstrate on the pitch.

That said, it’s hard to look past Messi’s performances on the pitch. The latest was a 5-goal masterclass vs Estonia, making him only the first player in history to score 5 goals in a game at both the club and international level.

Through Argentina’s World Cup qualifying run, in which they have gone unbeaten, Messi, has played 14 games, scoring 7 goals, a moderate number by his freakish standards. His impact, however, exceeds far beyond his goals. Messi is heavily involved in Argentina’s build up play, carrying the ball relentlessly and splitting opposition defenses with his exceptional passing ability.

And from what we do know, the captain tends to switch gears when it comes to major international tournaments. In the 2014 World Cup, Messi picked up the Golden Ball, scoring 4 goals and guiding Argentina to the finals. In last year’s Copa America, the magician scored 4 goals and assisted 5, and was Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament.

This winter, we should expect no less from the master. After his latest showing against Estonia, Messi is looking sharp as ever, and it would be no surprise if he keeps up this form as we approach Qatar.

Exceptional Emi

Argentina’s Copa America run brought with it the rise to the top of a player few had known well prior to his heroics in the competition. Emiliano Martínez was arguably the talk of the tournament, with his most notable contribution being the three saves he made in a penalty shootout against Colombia in the semi-finals. Throughout the competition, Martínez made some exceptional saves, and conceded just 2 goals across 7 games.

He also demonstrated exceptional character, something that was greatly appreciated and acknowledged by Argentina’s captain himself, Lionel Messi. With Martínez in goal, Argentina appear hard to beat, and should it ever boil down to a penalty shootout in the knockouts, he is definitely the man you would want guarding the net.

Delicate. Dynamic. Destructive – De Paul.

Yes. It is possible for one man to be all of these three. That man is Rodrigo De Paul, Argentina’s most consistent and reliable performer. Over the last 2 years, the man from Atletico Madrid has been a mainstay in Argentina’s midfield, and not only has he been the most consistent starter, but he has also been an exceptionally important one.

The beauty of De Paul’s game at the heart of Argentina’s midfield is that it is the perfect blend of attacking abilities and defensive duties. The 28-year-old workhorse has also gained a reputation for his intensity off the ball, something that has been evident in his performances for Argentina over the Copa America as well as in the World Cup qualifiers.

Having played higher up the pitch in possession when featuring for Udinese, De Paul evolved his game after shifting to Atletico Madrid last summer, and his since become far better defensively. Argentina’s engine house, De Paul was a key defensive presence in the Copa America run and was all the more important given that Argentina averaged just 49% possession over the course of the tournament.

Not only is De Paul defensively solid, but he is also an excellent ball-carrier in midfield, something he developed playing as a winger during the early stages of his career. He has demonstrated this trait on numerous occasions when playing for Argentina, and the hope will be that he performs in similar fashion this winter. De Paul is one of the most versatile midfielders featuring in the tournament, and Argentina’s success will most certainly be a function of his performances on the pitch.

De Paul will accompany Leandro Paredes and Giovanni Lo Celso in midfield, with Guido Rodríguez also an option should Paredes not be fit. This dynamic midfield does a lot of work off the ball and is also exceptionally creative with it. The Argentinians have finally found a perfectly balanced midfield, something they never quite had at the last few World Cups.

Messrs Otamendi and company – Argentina’s Shield

One of the defining traits of this Argentinian side is its solidity in defence. Through the World Cup qualification stage, the men in blue and white have conceded just 8 goals in 17 games, keeping an impressive 10 clean sheets. At the heart of this defensive solidity has been Nicolas Otamendi.

The 34-year-old center back from Benfica has been a rock in Argentina’s defence, performing consistently throughout the qualifying stage. Otamendi partners with Cristian Romero in defence, a man who is growing in confidence and improving his performances with every passing game. 

That said, the defensive unit as a whole is also exceptional, with the likes of Nicolás Tagliafico, Marcos Acuña, Nahuel Molina, and Gonzalo Montiel performing consistently in the fullback positions throughout the qualification stage.

Pair this unit with their impenetrable goalkeeper Emi Martínez, and it’s hard to see Argentina shipping too many goals. In fact, they shipped a mere 2 goals in 7 games in last year’s Copa America.

There’s something special about the way Otamendi has stepped up for his country over the last few years. The veteran is not only a strong character and a vital leader in the dressing room, but he also leads by example with his performances on the pitch. He is the backbone of this warriorlike defence, and the hope will be that he stays fit and continues to perform with the same level of consistency.

Abundance in Attack

While Messi tends to steal the headlines, such as with his latest 5 goal masterclass against Estonia, one mustn’t forget that this Argentinian side is equipped with countless weapons in attack, all of which seem to be firing at this point in time.

The Finalissima against Italy serves as the perfect example of this harmony in attack. Argentina won that game 3-0, with goals coming from Ángel Di María, Lautaro Martínez, and Paulo Dybala. Add to this Julian Alvarez and Papu Gomez, and Lionel Scaloni is spoilt for choice in attack.

In the game vs Italy, Di Maria showed just why he should still be considered one of the best in the world at what he does, scoring a beautiful chip to extend Argentina’s lead to 2-0 before half time. The front 3 of Messi, Di Maria, and Martínez were a menace, with their movement and smooth interplay proving to be too much to handle for the Azzurri.

Not only did Argentina’s starting front 3 fire, but they were also able to get fresh legs on the pitch in the form of Paulo Dybala, who drilled in low to score Argentina’s 3rd goal with the last kick of the game. Having such quality options off the bench is a bonus, and it could be a difference maker at the World Cup, where games are likely to be much tighter with the need for a spark of individual brilliance.

Winning Ways

Any player will tell you that having that winning experience and know-how is a difference maker in big games. This is exactly what the Argentinian side had been lacking for so long. They finally broke that barrier with their first Copa America win in decades, and it has instilled a great sense of confidence and belief in the side.

The men in blue and white followed that up by clinching the Finalissima last week, adding to their trophy cabinet. They have also been on an impressive 33 match unbeaten run, and it’s almost like they’ve forgotten what it is like to lose a game.

The Argentinians will be soaring with confidence as they edge closer to the World Cup. The squad has the perfect blend of young and experienced players, all of whom have tasted success with the national team.

What’s extremely important is that this side not only has individuals who have been extremely successful at the club level, but it’s also a side that has learned to win together. The level of camaraderie appears to be at an all-time high, and with their latest triumphs, it’s hard to see Messi’s men slowing down anytime soon. The hope is that they will carry this form and mentality into Qatar, where they must most certainly be feared as serious contenders.

Argentina’s final test before the World Cup will come against Brazil on the 22nd of September, who happen to be the last team Scaloni’s side lost against. Brazil are the odds favorites to lift the trophy in Lusail and have topped the qualification group ahead of Argentina.

Let’s be clear about one thing – there is a big community of football fans outside Argentina that want Lionel Messi to win the World Cup. However, the reality is that there are, at least on paper, five teams with better squads full of superstars – Brazil, France, Spain and Germany to name a few.

However, the World Cup will happen mid-season and the dynamics will be unlike we have ever seen before. Maybe it’s written in the stars for Lionel Messi. Que Sera Sera, they say.

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