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World Cup 2018 team preview: Argentina is a mess around Messi

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group D is Argentina.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group D: 60%
Odds to advance: 85.7%
Odds to win World Cup: 10%
Elo rank: 4
Yahoo Sports power rank: 5

Our writers say: There is a great deal of money to be won if you can accurately predict what this Argentina team will do on any given day. Because there’s just no telling. After losing a World Cup final and two Copa America finals in extra time in three consecutive summers, a shambolic qualifying campaign very nearly saw the Albiceleste miss out on Russia. There are a lot of big names up front, and gaping holes everywhere else in the lineup. Still, Argentina has Lionel Messi. And the world’s greatest player might be taking his last stab at finally winning this thing. Leander Schaerlaeckens

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Is this the summer Lionel Messi finally wins a World Cup? (Associated Press)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 17th
Best World Cup finish: Champion (1978, 1986)
2014 finish: Lost in the final to Germany
Qualifying: Finished third in South America
Schedule: Iceland (Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m., Fox), Croatia (Thursday, June 21, 2 p.m., Fox), Nigeria (Tuesday, June 26, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group D preview]

Squad

Manager: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Lionel Messi (F)
Top players: Messi, Sergio Aguero (F), Gonzalo Higuain (F), Paulo Dybala (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: Because they have the greatest player ever. That, obviously, is overly simplistic reasoning, but Messi is brilliant enough to make it valid reasoning. You’ll probably hear a lot about Argentina’s qualifying struggles, but with Messi in the team – he missed eight games due to injury or suspension – La Albiceleste took 2.1 points per match. He singlehandedly dragged them from the mountains of Ecuador to Russia. He can singlehandedly drag them to a World Cup final. He’s that good. And he has a defense that conceded less than a goal per game in qualifying behind him.

Why they’ll lose games: They’re not quite sure who or what they are. And that’s been the case for ages. Argentina still hasn’t figured out how to piece a pretty puzzle together around Messi. There’s still time. But there’s also a very real chance that Sampaoli can’t crack the code, and that Argentina remains exasperatingly ordinary.

There’s also a chance it becomes extraordinarily permeable at the back. Sampaoli’s system requires an alarmingly high defensive line. His defenders, despite that strong qualification record, don’t have the legs and open-field ability to play it. If Sampaoli can’t strike a balance to accommodate them, things could get ugly.

How they’ll play: Whether it’s a 4-2-3-1 of some sort, or a 2-3-3-2 – as Sampaoli has suggested – Sampaoli’s challenge is to mold Messi into his full-bore pressing system. Messi runs less, on average, than any other outfield player in a top European league. Sampaoli has, in the past, required incessant intensity from all 11 players, but knows running Messi into the ground isn’t feasible or optimal. So Argentina will still be aggressive and combative, and they’ll play at a break-neck pace when possible. But this won’t look like Sampaoli’s Chile team from four years ago.

Projected lineup: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ We’ve got no clue. Neither, in all likelihood, does Sampaoli. He had just one pre-World Cup friendly (against Haiti) to experiment after an unnecessarily controversial game in Israel was cancelled. Then he lost a possible starter, Manuel Lanzini, to a torn ACL.

Messi is a certainty. Nicolas Otamendi and Angel Di Maria are near certainties. But beyond that? Lucas Biglia probably would be, but lost the last month of the club season to a back injury. He could start eventually, but Javier Mascherano seems to be first in line for the holding midfield role. Here’s our projection for the opener:

(4-2-3-1): Franco Armani; Eduardo Salvio, Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio, Nicolas Tagliafico; Javier Mascherano, Giovani Lo Celso; Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi, Christian Pavon; Gonzalo Higuain.

The most likely alterations would be Gabriel Mercado for Salvio at right back; Ever Banega for Lo Celso in the middle; and Maxi Meza for Lo Celso or Pavon on the left, in the spot that likely would have been Lanzini’s. Aguero could eventually start ahead of Higuain up top, but the Juventus hitman looks set to get the first shot.

Oh, and Armani, with a grand total of zero caps to his name, will likely be the starting keeper after Sergio Romero had to withdraw from the squad due to injury.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: The strange, strained relationship the nation has with its star.

Why to root for them: Messi deserves a World Cup. He deserves to never hear ridiculous arguments diminishing his greatness by pointing to his supposed failures on the international stage. He deserves to be universally loved in Argentina. And only a title will extinguish all of that.

Why to root against them: If it turns out to be a dumpster fire, there’s some serious schadenfreude potential. There’s something surreal about seeing a team with so much talent fail so spectacularly.

If you’re going to watch one game … The Iceland game should be fantastic theatre.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

Group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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