Monday, July 16, 2018
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Group D: Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?

Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?
Can Lionel Messi drag Argentina to glory (Picture: Getty/AP)

With less than a week before the World Cup kicks off, the excitement will be building around the 32 competing nations in Russia.

Few nations place as much pressure on their national team than Argentina and the burden of expectation will fall on star man Lionel Messi this summer.

The Barcelona forward carried an underwhelming Argentina side to the final in 2014 but they lost out to Germany in extra-time.

The nature of the draw means Argentinas route to the final is unlikely to be as favourable this time around but they are favourites to emerge from Group D as leaders.

TALKING POINT: CAN MESSI CARRY ARGENTINA ONE STEP FURTHER

If Messi isnt already the greatest player of all-time then its because hes failed to please his detractors with a World Cup winners medal.

Many feel he can settle the debate once and for all by guiding Argentina to glory in Russia but it will take an effort of epic proportions to disguise the weaknesses elsewhere in the squad.

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Argentina finished third in CONMEBOL qualifying but it took a hat-trick from Messi in their final win-or-bust qualifier against Ecuador to ensure their place at the World Cup.

Argentina's record in qualifying

Wins: 7
Draws: 7
Losses: 4

It was far from a perfect qualifying campaign with a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Brazil and three different managers installing new ideas throughout a rocky 18-month period.

Argentinas strength is clearly in attack but they looked lost without Messi and the onus will be on him again – as it was four years ago – to take his nation a step further.

Jorge Sampaoli has introduced a wealth of younger talent into the squad since taking over but the Argentines look weak at the back and will need strong protection from Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia to give their attacking players a chance.

The burden, naturally, will fall on Messi and hell need to have a tournament like Maradona did in 86 to add an international tourmanent to his collection.

GROUP OVERVIEW
Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?

Argentina left it until the final round of qualifying before booking their place at the World Cup.

Messis hat-trick against Ecuador looked like it would hand the Argentines a play-off place but Chiles defeat meant they qualifed automatically by finishing third.

Iceland upset the odds [and England] with the story of Euro 2016 by reaching the quarter-finals in France.

Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?
Iceland upset the odds in France (Picture: Getty)

They were handed an unfavourable qualifying group of Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey but came through to become the smallest nation by population to ever qualify for the World Cup.

Croatia finished beind Iceland in their qualifying group and beat Greece 4-1 in a play-off to confirm their place.

Nigeria breezed through qualifying under a fresh new set-up under manager Salisu Yusuf and finished five points above Zambia in group B.

HOW WILL ARGENTINA LINE UP

Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?
Sampaoli hasnt settled on a first xi or a system (Picture: Getty)

Heres the truth: nobody knows.

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Sampaoli has shown little loyalty to system or personnel since taking charge and injuries to Sergio Romero and Manuel Lanzini could convince him to change again.

Argentinas strength is in their attack – Mauro Icardi didnt even make the 23-man squad – but Gonzalo Higuain looks likely to lead the line despite *those* misses in Brazil four years ago.

[SELECCIÓN MAYOR] Los 23 seleccionados que defenderán nuestra camiseta en Rusia 2018 ya tienen sus dorsales. pic.twitter.com/WuNgcb8xHo

— Selección Argentina (@Argentina) May 29, 2018

Messi should play centrally and could have the legs of Angel Di Maria and River Plate forward Cristian Pavon on either flank.

Biglia and Mascherano will be given their unenviable task of protecting a flaky back four consisting of Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio, Marcos Rojo and Sevilla ace Gabriel Mercado.

Romeros injury means Chelsea back-up keeper Willy Callabero should start.

Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?

WHO SHOULD ARGENTINA FEAR

Croatia pose the biggest threat to Argentina in Group D.

They may have finished behind Iceland in qualifying but Zlatko Dalics men have plenty of tournament experience.

Can Lionel Messi emulate Diego Maradona by dragging Argentina to World Cup glory?
Croatia have strength in all areas (Picture: Getty)

Croatia provided a stern test for Brazil in a recent friendly at Anfield and a midfield of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic can match anyone.

Icelands underdog status plays into their hands at major tournaments and they showed at Euro 2016 that few nations can match their work ethic.

Nigeria have won just one World Cup match since France 1998 and will do well to emerge from the group.

FIXTURES

16th June
Argentina vs Iceland
Croatia vs Nigeria

21st June
Argentina vs Croatia
Nigeria vs Iceland

26th June
Nigeria vs Argentina
Iceland vs Croatia

ODDS – TO WIN THE GROUP

Argentina: 8/11
Croatia 15/8
Iceland 9/1
Nigeria 9/1

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