Argentina has finished as runner-up in its last three major tournaments, and Russia 2018 may be the last chance Lionel Messi has to lead his nation to World Cup glory.
It’s been a less than conventional run to the World Cup for arguably one of the most talented squads in the competition. Despite boasting a player who many consider as the greatest of all-time in Lionel Messi, Argentina came close to not qualifying for the tournament in Russia at all.
It would have been the first time since 1970 that the two-time World Cup winners missed the tournament, but Messi saved La Albiceleste with his hat trick vs. Ecuador on the final day of qualifying. Argentina finished as runner-up in the last World Cup and have finished as runner-up in the past two Copa America tournaments as well.
Argentina would have been hoping to head into the tournament as one of the favorites and potentially go one better than it has in its previous three international tournaments. Recent form has continued to look spotty, though, and has cast some doubts over the squad's potential, despite Messi's greatness. Here's what you need to know about Argentina entering the World Cup.
How They Qualified
It was a tense run in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, with five teams still vying for the available places heading into the final round of fixtures. Argentina had underperformed throughout the entirety of qualifying and found itself near the bottom of the pack.
Argentina gave a good account of itself against some of their stronger rivals, beating Colombia, Chile and Uruguay. But it was against the lesser sides that it struggled, with defeats to Ecuador and Paraguay coupled with stalemates against Venezuela and Peru.
A heavy defeat to old rival Brazil left Argentina on the verge of a shocking qualifying failure. With Brazil and Uruguay already having securing qualification, Argentina entered the final round of fixtures behind Colombia and Chile, and level on points with Peru as it competed for the remaining two spots.
Messi's heroics led Argentina to victory, though, and a favorable round of results meant it finished in a flattering third spot.
Group Stage Games
Argentina received a tough draw for the tournament, even if it avoided potential crunch clashes vs. teams like Spain and England. There are pitfalls in its group, perhaps most notably Nigeria, which beat (a Messi-less) Argentina 4-2 back in November.
Argentina will also face a tricky Croatia team, which has a good balance of exciting young talent and established superstars like Real Madrid’s Luka Modric. Croatia hasn't been past the group stage since its impressive surge to third place in 1998, though.
The final spot is filled by an Iceland side entering its first World Cup. It shot to prominence with impressive performances at Euro 2016, famously eliminating England in the round of 16. It followed it up with an impressive qualification campaign, topping a group containing fellow Group D side Croatia and Turkey and Ukraine.
Possible Route to the Final
Argentina should still fancy its chances to win the group. On paper it has the best squad in that group. Winning the group could see Argentina face South American rival Peru, a team that it twice failed to beat in qualifying and would provide a stern test, but it’s much more preferable than, say, facing France in the round of 16 should Argentina finish second.
Spain or Portugal would be the likely opposition up next in the quarters, as their group could go either way. Argentina also lost to both Portugal and Spain recently, but it would probably prefer the draw against Cristiano Ronaldo's side. After that, it could be onto a rematch of the last World Cup final in the semis, Germany is favored to be waiting in that quadrant of the bracket.
If Argentina reaches the final, it could be a classic encounter with either France or Brazil in a mouthwatering matchup.
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani (River Plate), Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres)
Defenders: Marcos Acuña (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Federico Fazio (Roma), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax)
Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di Maria (PSG), Giovani Lo Celso (PSG), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)
Forwards: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus)
Argentina dispensed of manger Edgardo Bauza midway through qualifying, as he took much of the blame for the squad underperforming. It has improved since Jorge Sampaoli took over. He was the manager who guided Chile to the Copa America title over Argentina in 2015. Hopes are renewed, and it certainly has the talent in the squad and the track record at this level to suggest it can compete.
Argentina has just looked a little poor recently, though, and heavy defeats at the hands of Brazil and Spain suggest Argentina is far from being a serious contender. It does face several pitfalls early on and may have difficulty navigating its group if it doesn't improve before the tournament kicks off.
Difficulties early on could breed doubt and inconsistency, which could result in Argentina falling at its first major hurdle. While it should still definitely get out of the group, it may have to settle for second place depending on other results.
The order in which it finishes will likely determine how far it will go, as Argentina would be pegged as underdogs against France or Spain and a Messi-Ronaldo showdown vs. Portugal would be tough to call.
Simply put, it's tough to know what you'll get from this Argentina team. It's talented enough to win it all. It's flawed enough to be knocked out in the group stage. The end result probably sits somewhere in the middle.