Predicting the Argentina Starting XI at World Cup 2014

Christopher Atkins@@chris_elasticoContributor IMarch 28, 2013

Predicting the Argentina Starting XI at World Cup 2014

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    We are just 12 months away from the next iteration of the festival of football that is the FIFA World Cup, and international sides the world over are beginning to formulate plans based upon their success, or otherwise, in qualification.

    Argentina, twice World Cup winners in 1978 and 1986, are one of those on course for a straightforward qualification. The struggles of Diego Maradona's side four years previous are now just a distant memory, with a new generation solely focused on success at Brazil 2014.

    Thus far, the signs have been good. Head coach Alejandro Sabella has built a far more balanced and sturdy unit that have risen comfortably to the top of the South American pile. His plan, and future plans, are clear.

    With that in mind, then, let's take a look at what appears to be Sabella's first choice side with the 2014 World Cup now in his sights.

Goalkeeper: Sergio Romero

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    Sampdoria goalkeeper Sergio Romero has been first choice for his country since the 2010 World Cup campaign and little looks like changing in that regard.

    Romero is not everybody's preference in terms of goalkeeping style, partly due to a certain extravagance to his general play.

    However, above all, he is a very good shot-stopper and has built a solid relationship with his defence.

    The former Eredivisie winner with AZ Alkmaar has remarkable experience for someone that recently turned 26-years-old and, with his best years ahead of him, he should retain the shirt for some time yet.

Right-Back: Pablo Zabaleta

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    Pablo Zabaleta is a truly phenomenal footballer and, since his rise to prominence at Manchester City, seems to have finally earned the wider respect that his abilities deserve.

    Many would argue that he is currently the best right-back in the Premier League. Indeed, based on this season's performances, it is perhaps only Brazilian Rafael da Silva at rivals Manchester United who could offer a viable alternative.

    At international level, it is a similar scenario. Zabaleta's assurance in both attack and defence places him comfortably clear of any rivals for his shirt and, with the World Cup just a year away, that situation is unlikely to change.

    Zabaleta's wealth of top level experience will be vitally important to his side come the competition itself and, with a cool head on his shoulders, they will look to him for stability when the pressure begins to increase.

Centre-Back: Ezequiel Garay

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    Benfica centre-back Ezequiel Garay has taken the giant leap from promising youngster to established top-class defender over the past two years, with Argentina set to benefit immensely from his development.

    After a stalling career at Real Madrid, Garay joined the Lisbon side as part of a player exchange deal with Fabio Coentrao in 2011 and has seen his career take off since. Only this past week, he has been linked with a big money summer move to Manchester United. (Sky Sports)

    A composed and elegant figure at the base of the defence, Garay has been a major part of Sabella's side, post-2011 Copa America, and will be central to any success Argentina achieve at the World Cup.

    An ever-improving force, Garay has the potential to be a world-leading figure in his position.

Centre-Back: Federico Fernandez

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    The second member of Sabella's regular centre-back partnership in qualifying has been Napoli-owned Federico Fernandez, currently plying his trade on loan at Getafe in Spain.

    The 24-year-old may not have made the impact at club level that he may have hoped for, but has firmly stamped his authority on a place in the national side with a series of impressive displays.

    Fernandez is a solid presence at the heart of the defence, with good positional skills and sound technique in all aspects of his game.

    He may lack the style and panache of centre-back colleague Garay, and has struggled for game-time at Napoli, but he is a safe option who has, thus far, formed a solid partnership alongside his Benfica-based colleague.

Left-Back: Marcos Rojo

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    Another to have become a regular for Argentina under Sabella is 23-year-old Marcos Rojo, filling what has been a problem position for the Albiceleste for some time.

    Rojo, who now plays for Sporting Lisbon, spends much of his club career at centre-back meaning that, like Zabaleta on the other side, he is generally a very solid defensive presence in the defensive line.

    Having played with centre-back Fernandez at Estudiantes under Sabella, Rojo has both a good understanding of his coach's preferred tactical setup and a good relationship with the left-sided centre-back.

    Blessed with pace, Rojo pushes forward regularly to support the attack on the left flank and, when given the opportunity, has proven to be a good crosser of a football in attacking areas.

Central Midfield: Javier Mascherano

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    Javier Mascherano may not be everyone's favourite footballer, but he is a player you would always rather have with you than against you.

    The Barcelona man is famed for his combative nature and has become a master at breaking up play in the midfield. However, his contribution when in possession is often overlooked.

    Mascherano may lack the sparkling feet of Messi or the range of passing of Fernando Gago, but he remains a good passer of the ball and someone comfortable with playing the ball out from the back.

    Having proved his worth in Argentina, Brazil, England and now Spain, his presence among the world's elite defensive midfielders is not in doubt.

    For Sabella's side, as a former captain, his presence at the base of the midfield will be a major steadying force when the pressure rises ahead of the World Cup's latter stages.

Central Midfield: Fernando Gago

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    Back in his homeland on loan with Velez Sarsfield, Gago remains a major part of Sabella's plans for the national team as the side's deep-lying playmaker.

    A wonderful passer of the ball, the one-time Boca wonderkid has finally come of age under Sabella to show the type of form that appeared to be his destiny from an early age.

    Another graceful and composed presence, he is unlikely to be flustered by the red hot atmospheres in Brazil come the World Cup. The only worry is that he will revert to not imposing himself on games as well as he has shown he can.

    Gago should return to parent club Valencia this summer, assuming disagreements with the club can be settled and will, at least, head into the World Cup off the back of a good level of regular competition.

Central Midfield: Angel Di Maria

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    Real Madrid winger Angel di Maria has taken on a different, but heavily influential role in the Argentina side under Sabella, operating as a third man in central midfield.

    While he is given some freedom to drift to the flank if he so wishes, as is his natural desire, his main task is to link play while also adding an extra body to the core of the side in defence.

    A wonderfully gifted footballer, di Maria is a wonderful dribbler of a football and, with natural footballing intelligence, he has proved an underrated creative force from his new central position.

    Di Maria's positional switch was unexpected, but has worked wonderfully so far. As he continues to provide regular goals and assists, as well as showing unexpected discipline in his defensive duties, the one-time Benfica star is showing himself to be more than just a tricky winger.

Attacking Midfield Right: Lionel Messi

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    The best player in the world at the moment? Most would say so. Better than Maradona? It's a controversial argument, but one that could be backed up with a fairly convincing case.

    Lionel Messi is simply a phenomenon and, with 13 goals in his past 12 international matches, there can no longer be any argument whatsoever that he does not perform at international level.

    Sabella's tactical changes have freed up his Barcelona based star, with Messi roaming from a starting position on the right-flank to reap havoc all across the pitch.

    Having been a divisive figure among fans of the Albiceleste, Messi has responded well to being handed the captain's armband in 2011 and has seemingly finally won over the supporters.

    His qualities are no secret and, if Argentina can give him a platform to work from in 2014, he could be the key to major success.

Attacking Midfield Left: Sergio Aguero

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    Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero is another player who has adapted wonderfully to a new role under Sabella, playing an all action wide-forward role on the left flank.

    Playing from deeper has, in one respect, allowed Aguero to show his under-appreciated creative talents. It may limit his goalscoring contributions, but there are plenty of others looking to chip in on that front.

    It is a role that requires great discipline to tracking runners, but also offers plenty of rewards. Aguero is then given freedom to use his pace and close control to run at his opposite number, particularly on the counter-attack.

    A wonderful player, even when outside of his natural comfort zone, Aguero will be a danger to any opponents in both a creative and goalscoring capacity.

    A fine all-round forward, Aguero is almost the perfect candidate for the role.

Centre-Forward: Gonzalo Higuain

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    Real Madrid forward Gonzalo Higuain has been one of the most prolific strikers in European football for some time now, breaking the 20-goal barrier on an impressive three occasions in the past four years.

    At international level, too, his scoring record is good with 19 goals in 32 games. However, that record is greatly boosted by a remarkable tally of nine goals in 10 qualification fixtures ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

    Much of both Higuain and Messi's improved goalscoring under Sabella is due to the team's improved balance and the freedom that is afforded as a result. Both, though, have immense quality in the penalty area.

    Higuain is a wonderfully clinical finisher and shows great intelligence in his movement. With impressive speed and athleticism also on his side, he has the potential to unlock any defence worldwide when on form.

    With Di Maria, Messi and Aguero all part of his supply chain, Higuain will be afforded plenty of chances at the World Cup. Given his past record, few would bet against him taking them.