Argentina have been a perpetual candidate for the World Cup ever since winning their first title at home in 1978. With an enviable roster of stars and some of the best players in the world, it is therefore surprising to learn that the nation has not managed to pass the quarter-final stage for 24 years.
In 2014, however, many observers believe that it could be the year of the Albiceleste. The defence still fails to convince, but there are plenty of reasons why the side led by Lionel Messi could break that losing streak in Brazil.
So will it be La Pulga who lifts the Jules Rimet trophy in the Maracana on July 13? Here are five reasons why Argentina will be one of the teams to beat in the world’s most prestigious football competition.
5. The Mascherano Effect
Argentina have the luxury of calling on not one, but two captains when they take the field. Although Barcelona star Javier Mascherano ceded the armband to club team-mate Lionel Messi, his impact on the Albiceleste’s performance continues to be pivotal in the middle of the pitch.
Mascherano provides an understated support to Argentina’s flashy superstars, doing the hard destroying work and bolstering a defence that is far from world-beating. His commitment and tenacity are unquestioned, and forming a double pivot with the more creative Fernando Gago, the ex-Liverpool player is a crucial cog in the machine.
4. (Almost) Home Advantage
As the hosts, Brazil will go into the World Cup as one of the strongest favourites.
However, neighbours Argentina—and indeed the entire South American contingent at the tournament—will feel confident at giving a good show on home soil, too.
Both the nation’s World Cup wins, as hosts in 1978 and in Mexico eight years later, occurred close to home. They reached the final in Uruguay in 1930 as well, but fell to the all-powerful Celeste team that had won the two previous Olympic Games.
Argentina are bound to have a fierce following this year, and historical precedent suggests they will be very competitive indeed.
3. An Intelligent Coach
Throughout the qualifying campaign, Argentina’s attacking prowess often made the difference right from the beginning. When the team began to splutter, however, coach Alejandro Sabella showed the intelligence and bravery needed to make big changes.
An example of the ex-Estudiantes man’s nous was evident away to Colombia.
Playing in the stifling humidity of Barranquilla in a key fixture early in the tournament, a defensive Argentina team struggled and went into half-time 1-0 down.
Sabella’s response was to throw on the fresh legs of Sergio Aguero, a switch that paid dividends. The Albiceleste went on to record an excellent 2-1 victory, giving them control in the Conmebol group that they would not relinquish for the rest of the campaign.
2. Strength in Depth
Everybody who follows international football will be aware that the first-choice Argentina line-up possesses an embarrassment of riches. However, should any of the starters face misfortune in Brazil, there are plenty of options on the bench.
Midfielders of the calibre of Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia are on hand if Javier Mascherano or Fernando Gago be unavailable at any point, and are worthy replacements. Angel Di Maria, meanwhile, will know that Tottenham’s Erik Lamela is keen to deputise at any point.
Further up the field, top strikers like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Rodrigo Palacio and Maxi Rodriguez would walk into most international setups. With the Albiceleste, they represent a potent option coming off the bench.
1. Lionel Messi
The Barcelona forward is bound to be the centre of attention in Brazil, where he will captain the Albiceleste—and with good reason.
A Lionel Messi in form and scoring goals could well be the catalyst Argentina need to break a 28-year drought and lift a third World Cup.
So far, La Pulga is yet to show his best side in a major international tournament. However, he has found a coherent place in the Seleccion under Alejandro Sabella, linking further up the field with forward partners Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain.
That trio, with Messi at its epicentre, can supply the goals that drive Argentina to a place on the podium.