Sam Kelly is an English-language sports writer and host of Hand of Pod, Argentina’s longest-running football podcast. Days out from the opening match of Qatar 2022 tournament, he sat down with the Times to shed light on the position and potential of team Argentina – a squad captained, for the final time at a World Cup, by the legendary Lionel Messi.
Argentina is on a very impressive 36-game unbeaten run. How reflective is this streak of their ability to dominate the competition in the World Cup? In other words, how good have these last 36 opponents been?
An unbeaten run will be nice for the players to be on and they’ll be full of confidence but as your question sort of implies it doesn’t really mean anything, even though they're only two matches away from equalling the world record at men's national team level.
They've played a bunch of easy friendlies in those matches, and I think any fan would have liked to see them try to play a big European country or two (not easy, with the UEFA Nations League taking up all the possible friendly dates), but they've also gone an entire World Cup qualifying campaign unbeaten (well, almost – the match against Brazil in Brazil didn’t get played of course), which isn't easy to do in South America's incredibly competitive group.
I think the bigger thing, psychologically, is the fact they won the Copa América last year, beating Brazil in the final to end a 28-year trophy drought and making it the first time Brazil has hosted the Copa and failed to win it. That drought has seemed to really play on the minds of Argentina teams in the past, so bringing it to an end could be huge.
What would you say are the biggest strengths and vulnerabilities in Argentina’s lineup?
The biggest strength is the group ethos they play with. They have a settled team who play well together, know each other's games and help each other out. In the past (before coach Lionel Scaloni came in) they were often guilty of expecting Messi to bail them out, but the current team are capable of playing well without him, and letting him provide that bit of extra magic, which takes a lot of pressure off him and obviously makes them harder to play against.
As for vulnerabilities, I don't see many but they will definitely be hoping that neither [goalkeeper] Emiliano Martínez (goalkeeper) nor [centre-forward] Lautaro Martínez (gets injured. They've got replacements for everyone else in the squad – Messi's won't be on the same level of course, but there are options they can bring in which won't necessitate a major reshaping of the tactical plan – but the other goalkeepers aren't as good as Martínez and they don't really have another number nine in Lautaro's mould at all. Julián Álvarez could step up, but he’s not quite the same style of player.
Are there any players you think may emerge as unsung heroes?
I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if he forces his way into the starting line-up, but Enzo Fernández is a cracking player who will certainly see action from the bench, and who I reckon will open his goalscoring account during the group stage.
In what ways might Messi’s recent performances with PSG, and the fact that this is his last World Cup, influence his style of play in the tournament?
I don't think they will. He found his happy place with the national team some time ago, so regardless of his club form he's just going to keep on being brilliant for Argentina. I think finally having won a trophy with the team is a bigger release for him. It might not be the World Cup but it takes a lot of pressure off (pressure he always put on himself, as much as media and fans piling it on, by all accounts), and that makes him even more dangerous.
I think they have a chance. In the past, I've always felt that expectations and likely performance haven't really been in sync – 2010 is a great example, when so many fans were convinced Maradona being in charge meant it was destiny that they'd do well, whereas anyone looking at it 'coldly' could see it would end in tears because they effectively didn't have a manager. This time the confidence is well-founded, and the team is already a formed group rather than coming together for the tournament hoping they can make things happen. It's just such a shame it's happening in this particular World Cup…
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