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World Cup 2014 Previews, Group F: Argentina

Bosnia-Herzegovina v Argentina

Team: Argentina
Group: F
Schedule: June 15 vs. Bosnia; June 21 vs. Iran; June 25 vs. Nigeria
World Cup Record: 37-20-13 (Winners 1978, 1986)
Qualifying Form: La Albiceleste rolled through South American qualifying, finishing first with a 9-2-5 record, outscoring opponents 35-15.

Manager: Alejandro Sabella, a 59-year-old who’d only coached at Estudiantes — where he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores — prior to taking over Argentina. Unlike the unpredictable, irascible Diego Maradona, Sabella might actually know what he’s doing as a national team coach.

Player to Watch: Lionel Messi, duh. There’s not a lot of sense writing extensively about Messi. He is great. He is unique. When he is on his game, he will score goals. It took nearly eight years, but Sabella finally catered the team around the Barcelona star and as a result Argentina is primed for a big tournament in Brazil. On a team filled with scoring stars he is head and shoulders above the rest despite standing a mere 5-foot-7.

Tactics/Style: Argentina went through nine different lineup formations in qualifying, but appears to have settled on a 4-3-3 for the World Cup. Lionel Messi-Gonzalo Higuain-Sergio Aguero form the deadliest (on paper) attacking trident headed to Brazil. All three have at least 21 international goals to on their resume.

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WAG of Note: Yanina Screpante, girlfriend of Ezequiel Lavezzi used to be active on Twitter. Her account has quieted since last June, leaving their relationship status in question.

Reason to root for: Messi is a joy to watch. It’s hard to think of a current superstar athlete who shuts up all the haters quite like Messi does. You might not love Barcelona — but you still find a way to respect and appreciate Messi. With Messi you get brilliance, not bullshit.

Reason to root against: The movie version of “Evita” is two hours of my life I want back.

Odds of winning: 5-to-1

Miscellany: Barring a surprise, Argentina is likely facing Switzerland or France in the Round of 16, if we assume chalk holds. … Central defender Ezequiel Garay appears on his way to a big-money move to Zenit in Russia after the World Cup. Nothing signals that you’re ready for a semi-retirement than a move to Russia, although it is hard to turn down the type of money the Gazprom-sponsored team can offer. … Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano aren’t the world’s most dynamic midfielders but if they can win balls and avoid yellow cards, they’ll be effective in Sabella’s system.

Oh Maxi: Ex-Liverpool midfielder Maxi Rodriguez isn’t officially on the 23-man roster to Brazil, yet. Either way his goal vs. Mexico in 2006 is the best Golden Goal in terms of quality in World Cup history.

Keep the fire: If there’s one massive red flag on Argentina, it’s in goal. Presumed started Sergio Romero was loaned to AS Monaco and played in only three matches in 2013-14. Call me crazy, but I’d rather not start a goalie at a World Cup with that level of rust. The other two keepers on the roster are journeymen Mariano Andújar and Agustín Orión. Argentina’s pre-Cup friendlies will tell a lot. Don’t be surprised if the solid if unspectacular Andújar gets the nod.

Narrative fun: Messi, if he wanted to take a page from Michael Jordan and retire prematurely, would already go down as one of the Top 10 players in the history of the sport. He’s won the Champions League and everything else possible at Barcelona. Does his “legacy” take a hit if he never wins anything of substance at the senior level with Argentina? Ultimately outside the Argentine version of “First Take” these sort of hollow arguments don’t matter, but you know it’s something that’s going to be talked and written about if Argentina and or Messi struggle again. Yippee!

A Moment about 1978: In the lore of the World Cup, 1978 is often overlooked, but it’s one of the more fascinating  tournaments considering the political backdrop in Argentina when it took place, along with a Cruyff-less Dutch squad making it all the way to the final. What always amazes me is the mass amount of confetti and ticker tape on the field for the final. Modern-day players likely would refuse to go on with that much detritus on the playing surface.

Take a look:

Thank you, Carlo: If Argentina makes a deep run in Brazil, as expected, it should send some chocolates and pasta to Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti for finding a position for Angel Di Maria. Once Real added Gareth Bale last summer, it needed a spot to play him and eventually settled on the ring wing opposite Cristiano Ronaldo — a spot sometimes formerly occupied by Di Maria. Instead of moping and complaining, Di Maria accepted his new role in the midfield and thrived. With Argentina he should serve as a key link-up man better its talented front trio and its grittier ball winners — just as he did for the Champions League winners.

Better bet?: Messi is the odds-makers favorite to lead the tournament in goals at 8-to-1; Aguero is a few spots down at 14-to-1.  Messi only has one World Cup goal on his resume, albeit in only a handful of games. Aguero might be the better bet if opponents are focused on Messi and proved himself to be a fine complementary player at Manchester City this season alongside Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo. Messi could have the better tournament, but Aguero looks a better threat to score more goals.

Last word: Argentina is due. After you go through the giants — Brazil, Italy, Germany and now Spain — Argentina is the final great world soccer power. La Albiceleste haven’t gone deeper than the quarterfinals since losing 1-0 to then-West Germany in the 1990 final. Unless Argentina gets stuck in a defensive slog and loses in penalty kicks a run to the final should be expected when you couple Messi in his prime playing — finally — on a team catered to his skills on South American soil.

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