So much more than Lionel Messi about Argentina’s World Cup armoury
When you have won four Ballon d’Or trophies, the weight of expectation is epically heavy on your shoulders. Lionel Messi has scored just once at the World Cup finals in two tournaments, however, rounding off a 6-0 group stage win for Argentina against Serbia and Montenegro back in 2006.
Yet Coral make the Barcelona superstar a firm 9/1 favourite to finally deliver on the grandest stage in sport by winning the Golden Boot. Make no mistake, though, Alejandro Sabella’s side, who are 5/1 second-favourites behind hosts Brazil, are far from a one-man team.
Such is the strength in depth in attack for Argentina – provided by the likes of Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Angel di Maria (Real Madrid), Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli) and Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG) – that they can afford to ignore Carlos Tevez’s claims. He has fired Juventus to the brink of a third straight Serie A title, but never received a call-up from Sabella.
All-out attack is the mantra of this Argentina team. Messi is joined by Aguero (16/1 to be World Cup top-scorer) and Higuain (25/1), with Di Maria nominally in the hole behind this prolific striking trio. They are so fluid, however, that this fearsome front four are simply left to express themselves rather than taking up set positions.
Sabella has toyed with a back three, but reverted to a flat four and two holding midfielders in the last friendly against Romania. It is this defensive six, with only really first-choice right back Pablo Zabaleta supplementing attacks, which provides the platform that allows Argentina’s star-studded forward line to do their thing.
Balance is precarious for Sabella, however. There are options off the bench in Lavezzi (40/1 for the Golden Boot), Inter Milan pair Rodrigo Palacio and Ricky Alvarez, former Liverpool winger Maxi Rodriguez and Atletico Madrid’s Jose Sosa, but there is simply no space for a midfield playmaker.
With Javier Mascherano, another former Anfield player, and Fernando Gago or Lucas Biglia acting as anchors in the Argentine engine room, it leaves Ever Banega as a substitute. The Valencia player, on loan at Newell’s Old Boys, started just five of the 18 South American qualifiers.
Argentina’s perceived weakness is in defence – at left back and between the sticks especially. There may not be anyone of the Juan Pablo Sorin vintage for the former position, with Sporting Lisbon centre back Marcos Rojo currently in the spot because he’s left-footed, but the goalkeeping berth is more cause for concern.
Sergio Romero, Sabella’s first-choice stopper in qualifying, has been benched for the entire Ligue 1 campaign by Claudio Ranieri during his loan spell at Monaco, reducing him to a handful of appearances in domestic French cup competitions.
Backup keeper Mariano Andujar, meanwhile, is staring relegation from Serie A firmly in the face with basement Italian club Catania. He also had the indignity of being dropped during the campaign, but is transferring to Napoli next season.
It may be a similar story in the Premier League for Oscar Ustari, who signed for Sunderland in January. He and Boca Juniors number one Agustin Orion have just five caps between them, and are competing for the third goalie spot in Sabella’s squad.
Three of Argentina’s top five central defenders are entering their prime. Federico Fernandez (Napoli), Ezequiel Garay (Benfica) and Nicolas Otamendi (on loan from Porto at Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro) have all had Champions League exposure this term.
Ageing pair Fabricio Coloccini, the Newcastle United captain, and Hugo Campagnaro of Inter are there to give Sabella experienced options to supplement this talent. Jose Maria Basanta, who has earned all of his eight caps under the current Argentina coach, meanwhile, has mystifyingly made a career for himself in Mexico with Monterrey.
Should he select all of these centre halves, and not forgetting Rojo, for his final 23-man World Cup roster, then that is a sign Sabella remains seriously tempted by a system with wing backs. He really does not possess the personnel to make this tactical approach practical, however.
Argentina are expected to breeze through their group in Brazil, which contains Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria. On paper, it should indeed be plain sailing, and that is why Coral make Messi and company odds-on favourites both to top the pool at 2/7, and qualify for the knockout phase at 1/20.
The quarter-finals are rated as Sabella’s most likely point of defeat at 11/4. It is the stage that Argentina have exited the tournament at three of the last four World Cup finals. A glittering forward line is more than capable of taking them past that, though, so back one of their lethal strikers to clinch the Golden Boot now.