Predicting the Argentina Starting XI at World Cup 2014
For a nation that prides itself on its football ability and winning spirit, two consecutive World Cup quarterfinal finishes are, to put it bluntly, just not good enough. Argentina are expected to triumph in every competition they enter, and 2014's extravaganza will be no exception.
After the debacles of the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa America, the Albiceleste appear to have found their rhythm under coach Alejandro Sabella. Led by the goals of Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, they have surged to the top of the South American qualifying tournament, and at this stage, only a disaster would see them miss the flight to Brazil.
Now then, we can start to imagine what the first XI may look like one year from now, as the Argentines make the short trip north to their neighbours and fierce rivals in search of victory.
Disagree with any of our suggestions? Let us know how you think the team will line up in the comments section.
Goalkeeper: Sergio Romero
While the vast majority of the Argentina team, and especially the defence, has seen its fair share of changes in the three years since 2010, one constant throughout that time has been the presence of Sergio Romero between the posts.
The agile, athletic goalkeeper has been the undisputed first choice since the second half of 2009, when he was drafted in by Diego Maradona to help save Argentina from a flagging World Cup qualification campaign that was saved by the skin of its teeth. Romero survived a spell on the bench with AZ and a year of Serie B football with Sampdoria to maintain his place in the first team.
His best strengths as a keeper are his startling reflexes and athleticism, which make him an outstanding shot-stopper both up close and from distance. He has a cool head and rarely commits errors, although he has shown himself vulnerable at times to crosses and other aerial assaults.
Full-Backs: Pablo Zabaleta and Gino Peruzzi
The full-back positions have been a problem area for successive Argentine coaches, who have resorted to a variety of solutions. Diego Maradona attempted to bypass the lack of forward-thinking widemen by placing four central defenders in his team, the lack of mobility caused by such a tactic exposed brutally by Germany's pacey wingers.
Sergio Batista fared little better as he welcomed Javier Zanetti back into the team, as the ex-Inter man failed to find his best football while Argentina crashed out of the Copa America. Pablo Zabaleta occupied the other flank for Batista's side, and he is set to do so in 2014.
While hardly an explosive option, the Manchester City man is a dependable performer with the legs to get up and down the pitch, and his versatility is a big plus to Sabella's plans. Expect Zabaleta to start in Brazil on the left side of defence, with Marco Rojo struggling to convince that he is the long-term solution for that post.
That leaves the right for Gino Peruzzi. The Velez full-back is just 20 years of age but has already made a lot of fans for his elegant yet uncompromising marking out wide. He is regularly included in Sabella's squads, and 12 months from now should be angling for a regular starting berth.
Centre-Backs: Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez
Defensive frailty has plagued Argentina for years, in the middle as much as down the wings. Scores of players have been tried, retried and discarded, but Sabella seems to have decided on his first-choice pair for the next few years.
Neither Ezequiel Garay nor Federico Fernandez could be classed as outstanding, world-class defenders, and both have had some trouble making their mark in European football. They are hard-working, solid performers though, who avoid making the sort of mishaps that have plagued previous incumbents such as Martin Demichelis, and through regular time together a partnership is slowly taking form.
Garay is the more elegant member of the pair, passing the ball out well from the back and marking tightly without committing too many fouls. Having finally put a frustrating spell at Real Madrid behind him, the centre-back is flourishing at Benfica and going from strength to strength.
In contrast, Fernandez relies more heavily on his physical attributes, and while at times somewhat clumsy on the ground, is a brilliant header of the ball. He already has two international goals to his name and will hope to add to that tally as he continues to improve.
Central Midfield: Javier Mascherano
A lot of players would feel somewhat aggrieved when a new coach comes in and strips them of the captaincy, particularly when it is the honour of leading out your own country in question. Credit, then, to Javier Mascherano, who took that particular blow to the chin and has only looked better since.
Sabella's decision to give the captain's armband to Lionel Messi was a masterstroke and has helped bring out the best from both the new leader and his predecessor. Masche now plays without the pressure of that title, which allows the Barcelona star to quietly go about his business destroying opposition work in his own and putting Argentina back on the front foot.
The ex-River Plate, Corinthians and Liverpool midfielder forms an integral part of the current side, doing the hard work which allows the Albiceleste's superstars to shine. Barring injury or some other misfortune, this is also the exact job he will carry out in 2014 anchoring the Argentine middle.
Central Midfield: Fernando Gago
This spot is without a doubt one of the hardest to predict looking forward 12 months. Fernando Gago has the upper hand and the coach's blessing at the moment, but lacking continuity and fitness at club level could cost the Velez Sarsfield man dearly if he cannot turn his fortunes around.
Taking advantage of Ever Banega's own injury woes, Gago has emerged as a worthy foil to Mascherano in the middle of the pitch. The ex-Real Madrid fringe player has impressed with his passing and movement while on international duty, forming a fluid partnership with Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero which is the creative axis of the team.
Away from the Albiceleste, however, it has not always been smooth sailing. He was underused during five years at Madrid, and a high-profile move to Valencia lasted just six months before he was shipped back to Argentina on loan. The last five months have seen Gago go from injury to injury, allowing a newly-fit Banega to come back on the scene and push for a place in the Argentina first team.
Central Midfield/Winger: Angel Di Maria
The Rosario native is another of the Argentina side who has flourished since the arrival of Sabella in 2011. Di Maria has primarily played on the left hand side of midfield in the coach's 4-3-3 formation, but his love of getting up the pitch is indulged by the system and almost makes him another forward.
The 25-year-old has found a new maturity in his game, both for Real Madrid and the Albiceleste, and it shows. The explosive pace and impressive dribbling skills are still there and dangerous against any team, but they have been teamed with an awareness of what is around him.
Whereas the old Di Maria was a frustrating prospect, too often picking the wrong option in the final third or selfishly going alone, the improved version looks for his teammates and finds the pass. This has made him one of the top players for assists in Argentina, and there have also been a fair number of spectacular goals to throw into the mix.
Although Erik Lamela will push him hard for the berth, my money is on the Madrid man to stay the course up to Brazil 2014.
Right Forward: Gonzalo Higuain
Although he is far from a fans' favourite for Real Madrid, Gonzalo Higuain's Argentina record is worthy of respect. Pipita has notched an outstanding 20 goals in 32 appearances in the Albiceleste shirt, including nine during the current qualifying campaign that positions him as top scorer in the entire tournament.
As with so much of Sabella's work, it is the little details that have made Higuain so devastating under his tenure. The centre forward was taken out of the middle to make room for Lionel Messi and instructed to move along the right flank and make diagonal runs into the danger area. It has led to a more fluid, more devastating Argentina attack, the fruits of which have been clear as Argentina lead the qualifying competition comfortably.
While doubts remain over Higuain's future at the Bernabeu, there is no question whatsoever that his role in the Seleccion is untouchable. If his partnership with Messi continues to thrive, he is a certainty for Brazil.
Centre Forward/ False 9: Lionel Messi
Surely few arguments will arise from seeing this wizard of world football at the heart of Argentina's World Cup effort in 2014. The Argentine public are fond of tagging their local products with the tag of world's best, from their beef to their women, but when they say that Lionel Messi is the most talented footballer in the world few will argue.
The jury was out for years on Messi, with many in his home nation rather unfairly stating that he left his best play in Catalunya when on international duty. Since taking the captain's armband right at the start of Alejandro Sabella's reign, however, the Barcelona maestro's form has improved astronomically.
Eight goals in the qualifiers so far sees him trail only Gonzalo Higuain, and Messi is always in the centre of his side's attacks as they have ripped apart the likes of Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela. Let's not forget that hat-trick in New Jersey last year against none other than Brazil; a repeat of that display in, say, the World Cup final12 months from now, would secure his immortal status.
Left Forward: Sergio Aguero
It was not easy for Sergio Aguero to find his natural place in the Argentina national team. Undoubtedly gifted with extraordinary talents, the Manchester City forward nevertheless had to bide his time behind a list of stars such as Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi before being given the chance.
But now that he is a fixture in the first team, working alongside Angel Di Maria to stretch sides on the left flank, it looks very unlikely that he will be giving up that post without a fight.
With the Madrid man supporting, Aguero has helped form an attacking trident alongside Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi that is more than worthy of being called the best forward line in the world. The trio work fluidly together, changing positions and supporting each other effortlessly; and the result is more often than not a torrent of goals.
El Kun was out last time around through injury against Venezuela and Bolivia, but he will be right back in the team for the upcoming qualifiers. If he can stay fit and in form, he will almost certainly be alongside La Pulga and Pipita in Brazil too.