World Cup team preview: Argentina

After their heartbreaking World Cup final loss to Germany in 2014, Argentina will be looking to go one better this year in what is widely regarded as the last shot at World Cup glory for their ageing stars.

All eyes will be on Lionel Messi as he looks to lead his country to their first World Cup since 1986. He starred with a hat-trick on the final day of South America’s qualifiers, sealing a 3-1 win over Ecuador and the Albiceleste’s spot at the tournament.

While that game went some way towards silencing critics who question Messi’s performances for Argentina, doubts still remain over Jorge Sampaoli’s side, whose stuttering qualification campaign ended one step above disaster.

Their fortunes haven’t improved since, with a 6-1 defeat to Spain in March and cancelled warm-up matches against Nicaragua and Israel having made for a less than ideal build-up to the tournament in Russia.

However, a relatively simple draw will work in Argentina’s favour. They will begin their tournament against Iceland on 16 June before playing Croatia five days later and ending their Group D campaign against Nigeria on 26 June.

Argentina was uncharacteristically toothless upfront in their qualification campaign, but their defence was rock solid. In 18 qualification games, they leaked just 16 goals.

Should the likes of Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero fire on all cylinders up front, Argentina won’t struggle to score. In fact, so fearsome is their attack on paper that Sampaoli was able to leave Mauro Icardi out of his squad, even after his 29 Serie A strikes this season for Inter Milan.

At the other end, the key man will be Nicolas Otamendi, who was instrumental in Manchester City’s Premier League success.

If they strike the right balance between offence and defence this time, Argentina will be a force to be reckoned with. As the fourth oldest squad at the tournament, they have no shortage of experience in their ranks.

The Albiceleste’s passage to the quarterfinals should be fairly simple. From there, all will depend on whether or not they can live up to their immense potential.

Argentina squad

Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Wilfredo Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate).

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (Roma), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon).

Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Angel di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors).

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City).