Argentina Team Preview: A Lion in Winter

Updated: Jun 13, 2018

I can't think of a story that more people would get on board for around the world than Leo Messi finally bringing home the one prize that has eluded and tormented him. There's a long-standing narrative in Argentina that feels abandoned by Messi, who left as a child to join the Barcelona system, and has never quite delivered the kind of performances for the Albiceleste that he has for Barca, never brought the nation to Maradona-level ecstasy. I think his performances were pretty damn good in the disastrous 2010 Maradona-"coached" monstrosity, and strong in 2014, but no title, no glory, no love. The lovable Messi, who's never showboated, never dives, never gives up, and has been at the heart of the best soccer on the planet in the 21st Century--who but coarsened Real Madrid fans wouldn't love this "redemption" story? I put in quotes because I don't think he has any failure to redeem.

As an aside, it's worth noting that Argentina was once infamous as a diving, conniving squad (the infuriating Simeone "I've been shot" flailing that led to the Beckham red in 1998, poisoning what had been a fantastic match up to that point). But the two least-likely-to-dive players in the world are Messi and Aguero. On his famous goal that gave Man City the title a few years back, Aguero was hacked twice in the penalty box but refused to go down; rather, he chose to put the damn ball in the net. I love the way both of these guys fight through fouls. Simply the best. England meanwhile has become a diver's paradise.

The main reason that Argentina won't deliver this Cinderella story: they are old. Really old in soccer years. Who's in their thirties? Messi, Aguero, Higuain, Mascherano, Biglia, Otamendi, Di Maria. In other words, all the best players not named Dybala (Banega is 29, and he feels like a spring chicken on this squad). There's often something that happens to a squad this age, particularly when it's been such a damn talented one: suddenly they look really slow and just not at all like we remember them in the last World Cup. See Spain, 2014 for the most recent example, or the faded Dutch team as their golden generation's bloom expired, gasping on Robben's runs (and a dive, as El Tri fans will quickly remind us). Argentina can't abandon its stars, nor am I sure that they should, but they aren't going to have the legs, especially at the back. I've never been an Otamendi fan, though he's played well of late at City, but if they play a high line they will be smoked, and if they don't the midfield will be drawn and quartered by a good possession team. Let's not forget that they lost 6-1 recently to Spain; without Messi, yes, but Spain and Germany can possess them to death, and Belgium and Brazil can run them into the ground. France can do both. Sooner or later they run into one of those, and I suspect it won't be pretty.

One also has to worry about injury. Aguero's body is always on the edge, hamstring problems especially. Biglia's falling apart. Mascherano missed 108 days this year, in China no less--and he's a dude that would play with an amputated limb. There's a huge amount of wear and tear on the squad.

And yet...the greatest player of his generation, paired with perhaps the best poacher in the world in Aguero. A world class offensive talent in Di Maria, and another great striker in Higuain. Throw in Dybala or Banega....It's a dazzling vision. But have we ever seen them play really well together? I thought they were scintillating in the Copa America Centennial, where they lost to Chile in PKs. They looked great, though let's face it, the competition was definitely a few cuts below the World Cup. But they were a disaster during qualifying, needing a Messi miracle to bust through.

And yet, they almost won it all in 2014; one better finish from Higuain and they damn well might have. I saw one of those 2018 Cup qualifying games earlier this soccer season, and it was as if the devil himself barricaded the opposition goal, somehow defying utter Argentinian domination. They weren't as bad as the results; maybe not so disastrous?

Could they get hot, have a few fresh faces carry them through the jello-legged periods, and pluck a few goals against anyone? Yeah. Would I be happy to see them do it? Hell yeah! Cooler Russian weather will help them. However, I suspect this will be a time when it becomes painfully clear that window closed four years ago. Starting with Jose Pekerman's U-20 squad in 1995, Argentina won 5 of 7 U-20 World Cups; Messi, Tevez, Aguero, and all the greats came through this run. They haven't been to the U-20 Semifinals since 2007. For whatever set of reasons, the next generation just didn't arrive, and I think the veterans are going to look a lot older than we remember them. In the meantime, old farts everywhere should enjoy every great moment they give us.

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