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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday

Barcelona
Read
 By Sam Kelly

Five things to fix for Argentina to reach the 2018 World Cup

Currently fifth in CONMEBOL, Craig Burley still sees Argentina making it to Russia 2018, albeit in tense fashion.

Runners-up at the 2014 World Cup, Argentina still don't have their place in the next one assured, with just two qualifiers left to play.

Jorge Sampaoli -- their third manager of this qualifying campaign -- will have been looking on during the recent draws with Uruguay and Venezuela with a degree of realisation that the task is tougher than he'd previously thought. So what are the main issues he needs to address?

1. A lack of goals

It's now over four matches since an Argentine last scored in open play in these qualifiers. Lionel Messi's goal against Chile came from the penalty spot; Tuesday night's equaliser against Venezuela was an own goal from Rolf Feltscher.

In 16 qualifying matches, Argentina have scored just 16 times. It's a far cry from the incisive, lethal counter-attacking with which they cut through opponents during the 2014 qualifying campaign under Alejandro Sabella. In need of freshening up under Gerardo Martino, and clueless in attack under Edgardo Bauza, Argentina were expected to improve on this front with Sampaoli in charge. They probably still will, given time, but points are needed right now if they're to secure passage to Russia.

In the two matches just gone, Paulo Dybala never really came to life and Mauro Icardi, who's waited so long for an opportunity for his country, didn't look like the commanding centre forward presence he was meant to be (although it was he who forced Feltscher into that own goal on Tuesday.)

Whether the solution is a tweak to the formation or the reintroduction of old established names like Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Sampaoli needs to improve the scoring rate somehow.

2. Sort the defence out

A three-man back line is the sacrifice Sampaoli clearly wants to make in order to add bodies further up the pitch to enable his possession-based game. And Argentina dominated possession completely in both qualifiers in this last double header.

They were, however, unsurprisingly hit with a counter-attacking threat in both matches -- and this is a strategy they'll have to get used to seeing from their opponents on a regular basis.

So it seems a little odd to put Federico Fazio, probably the least mobile of the central defensive options, as the man in the middle of that three. Fazio certainly wasn't the only Argentine to blame for Jhon Murillo's opener for Venezuela, but it will be interesting to see how long he lasts as the main distributor and last line of outfield defence.

3. Give Messi some options

It happened with frequency under Martino, almost always under Bauza, and in these first two official matches under Sampaoli, it has continued. Lionel Messi keeps having to drop deep to get the ball, and although there are now more teammates ahead of him when he does so, it's still the case that too few of them are providing proper passing options for him.

Against Uruguay, Icardi was too static and Marcos Acuna, a left-footer playing on the right, didn't provide the width needed. In the Venezuela match, Dybala was often missing and, in the second half particularly, we were too often treated to the sight of players in blue and white stripes standing and watching as Messi slalomed round opponents.

On Tuesday night, there were moments of clarity in which things came together -- a one-two between Messi and Dybala leading to a chance for the Barcelona man which was well turned round the post by Wuilker Farinez; a run from Angel Di Maria to allow Messi to play one of his trademark balls into the channel between right-back and right centre-back -- but these were isolated moments rather than being sustained throughout the match.

After a less than impressive 1-1 draw with Venezuela, FC's Gab Marcotti calls for patience with coach Jorge Sampaoli.

4. Get some variety in midfield

Javier Mascherano, so long a defender for Barcelona, is finally being seen as primarily a defender for Argentina as well -- and it seems in fact that he's no longer first-choice, given he only played against Venezuela due to Gabriel Mercado's suspension.

But if there's no place in Sampaoli's midfield for a player with relatively limited distribution, it's hard to see what Guido Pizarro's role is meant to be. The Tigres man is a fine holding midfielder, but if Argentina are going to enjoy the lion's share of the ball, the centre of the pitch should be an area only for players who will move it on with more purpose and speed than Pizarro.

Ever Banega's introduction against Venezuela, replacing Lucas Biglia (who'd played against Uruguay), was a nod towards that thinking, and he certainly helped when it came to getting the ball to Messi, but Pizarro's presence seemed to get in the way of including a more dynamic player between the lines.

A player who can make runs from midfield to get beyond Messi, allowing Banega to dictate on his own from deep, could be a crucial ingredient. In short, the midfield needs to be less predictable.

5. Overcome nerves

Tuesday evening was shaping up to be one of Di Maria's best Argentina performances for a long time and then he tweaked his hamstring. It's become something of a familiar theme matches when the national team need him.

In the 2014 World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium, in the 2015 Copa America final, and the 2016 Copa America Centenario final, Di Maria picked up muscular injuries similar to the one which forced him out on Tuesday. This could be pure coincidence, or it could be a product of the nerves which seem to affect the whole team, in one way or another.

Argentina still have qualification for the World Cup in their own hands, but to achieve it they have to come through two very high pressure matches. After a campaign in which plenty of supposedly easy matches have resulted in dropped points, there's psychological as well as tactical work to do ahead of the final double header. Adjusting to the new manager or not, Argentina's margin for error has now run out.

Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com

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