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Jun 9, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Argentina

Will Lionel Messi seize the spotlight and guide Argentina to a World Cup triumph? The Albiceleste's road starts in Group F.

Group F | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Iran | Nigeria


Team DNA

Strong in attack, but with a couple of question marks hanging over the defence, Argentina have the players to dominate possession when given the chance.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

- Wright Thompson: Remember the missing

- Grantland.com: Men in Blazers' Argentina preview

- World Cup blog: Argentina updates

But their default is to move the ball around in midfield and look to open space for the pace and skill of those terrifying attackers to exploit.

Off the ball, they can look nervy; on it, they're frequently sublime. Manager Alejandro Sabella has a wealth of experience as an assistant (he worked under Daniel Passarella for many years, including when the pair took Argentina to the 1998 World Cup in France) and has communicated his tactical versatility well to his players.

Starting scenario

This formation almost turns into a 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-4 on the ball as Di María bursts forward to join the forwards. In matches where Sabella believes he needs to be a little more cautious, a 3-5-2 is likely, with Marcos Rojo moving inside a little on the left of the back three and Sergio Aguero making way for an extra midfielder.

History

This will be Argentina's 16th World Cup appearance. They have reached four finals and won it all twice, in 1978 and 1986. Argentina have failed to escape group play just three times, in 1958, 1962 and 2002.

How they reached Brazil

Argentina had the second-best defensive record in the South American qualifying group (only Colombia conceded fewer goals) and the best attack (35 goals in 16 matches; the next-highest scorers were Chile with 29).

A 4-1 thrashing of Chile at home in October 2011 got things off to an ideal start. Argentina lost their next match, on the road, a 1-0 decision that marked the first time in 19 meetings that Venezuela had avoided defeat against Argentina. A month later, Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw against Bolivia.

But a 2-1 road win against Colombia got the ball rolling in earnest, and Argentina didn't lose another match -- competitive or friendly -- until a 3-2 defeat away against Uruguay on the last day of qualifying. By that time, Argentina had already won the group.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Brazil, of course. If both sides win their groups, as expected, they will be on track to meet in the Maracanã in the final.

Alexi Lalas and Ruud van Nistelrooy discuss which teams and players will exceed expectations in Brazil.

Most important player

Angel Di María may not be the obvious choice, but he is arguably even more important to Argentina's hopes than Lionel Messi.

Perhaps that's unfair to Messi; his runs off the ball, dribbles, passes and shots will undoubtedly play a big part in Argentina's tournament. But they will also draw the attention of opposing defences to his (right) flank on the pitch, which should free up Di María to burst forward down the left and join the attack in the manner he has done so impressively for Real Madrid.

In getting the ball from the midfield to that stellar attack, Di María's role is crucial to Argentina, and his forward running might possibly play its own part in preventing opponents from overcommitting down their own right side (Argentina's left), which could prove equally crucial since it is definitely the weaker side of the team's back line.

Definition of success

Everyone dreams of winning the World Cup, and Argentina have more reason to consider it a realistic aim than most of the 32 competing teams. Having not won any senior-level trophy since the 1993 Copa América, everyone is desperate to break the drought.

While the public may or may not view things quite the same way, a spot in the semifinals has to be considered a good showing, considering Argentina haven't gotten beyond the quarters since losing to West Germany in 1990.

The good news is, this aim seems eminently reachable; a group of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria is one this Argentina side should win. From there, while their likely round-of-16 opponent won't be easy, Argentina's route to the final four is nowhere near as intimidating as, say, host nation Brazil's.

How far will Argentina go?

They will reach the semifinals.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Mario Kempes

This team still revolves around Messi -- he is the best player in the world. But Messi has had to learn that he can't expect to do with Argentina what he does with Barcelona. He's not playing with these players every week, and they've had to learn to work together.

From midfield and forward, they're incredibly strong; but from the midfield to the back, they are not quite there yet. Overall, the defenders' names are not as big, aside from Man City's Pablo Zabaleta, so if there is a vulnerable spot, it will be the defence.

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