Argentina have qualified for the second round by the skin of their teeth. In the end, Croatia dominated a group many expected to go the way of the South Americans. Events in other groups, however, give Lionel Messi and friends cause to be optimistic about their further progress.
1. Argentina has an opening to the semi-final
Before the start of the tournament, we’d think that most would not have wanted to face France early on, but Didier Deschamps’ men haven’t exactly set the stage alight. Unspectacular, slow in possession, and flat out boring are what you’d most likely describe their group stage as, and Argentina have no reason to think they cannot be picked off.
Paul Pogba, the biggest talent in midfield, is playing as Pogba does. Enigmatic and a man of moments, do not expect him to dominate a quality team with possession. He simply does not do that. In N’Golo Kante, the French have one of the premier defensive midfielders in the game. He, though, keeps it ticking after winning the ball back with the right, if often simple, pass and the onus is on the others to provide forward impetus more often than not.
Another possible starter, Blaise Matuidi, is never going to help that situation much. Let’s hope for Corentin Tolisso. France are essentially a team of moments. Those moments come from Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, and Ousmane Dembele. All prolific dribblers, it will be interesting to see how the combative and fractious Argentines keep away from the referees’ books.
If they get past France, it would be one of Uruguay and…Portugal in the quarter finals, the round they should have marked as par before the first ball was kicked.
2. Who’s running the show?
It most definitely is not Jorge Sampaoli. At least, not solely. After disgracing football managers worldwide, it’s perfectly understandable. The Argentine lineup against Nigeria was much improved, and much of that improvement was down to Ever Banega being handed his first start of the competition.
The difference a forward passer made to the effectiveness of the passing was eye opening. Sideways, lacking ideas, static, and slow were how you’d characterise the opening two matches of their round, and they were duly punished by a far superior Croatian midfield. Superior midfield play should be a major factor at this World Cup. Instead of static, static, static, then unimaginative passing, Banega pushed the envelope, releasing some of the stress from Messi that he buckles under ever so often. Argentina are a better squad than being made out to be, and their best eleven isn’t half bad. A squad does not a team make, though.
Still, the selections of Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria and eventually Maximiliano Meza were grating to see. All gave their expected workmanlike, mediocre performances in a white and blue jersey that are not enough for a team with the calibre and story of Argentina. Get Paolo Dybala (right…) and Sergio Aguero out there.
3. Marcos Rojo to the rescue
If Messi and Argentina are to progress further, then the others have to help. The movement in midfield and attacking positions has to be better. The energy has to be better. They need to utilise the half-space more cleverly. The selections need to make sense. Messi, himself, has to take responsibility as a leader of this team. He’s a leader solely because he’s the best player, and in that he has the task of doing all he can to ensure Argentina acquit themselves well in Russia.
It simply is not enough to be the best player. To justifiably be mentioned in the rarefied air occupied by Pele and Diego Maradona, he has to show his mental toughness in an Argentinian shirt on the biggest stage. Maybe the chances at a World Cup title are gone. Maybe the Copa America letdowns were another massive missed opportunity. Overachieve at this tournament and potentially dispatch a battling Portugal, and the rhetoric would shift to the little Barcelona star.
In that sense, an Argentina-Portugal tie would be the most anticipated if it ever materialised.
To the defender with the winning contribution? “Well done,” is all that should be said to Mark Red, the unmarked red. That was the definition of clutch.