5 Reasons Argentina Believe World Cup Success Is Possible in 2014
Confidence is high around the Argentine national team 12 months from the World Cup. With qualification almost a foregone conclusion, fans of the football-mad nation already believe that their side has what it takes to make an impact in Brazil and end a 24-year drought in the competition.
Since falling just short of back-to-back titles in 1990 after losing to West Germany in the final, the Albiceleste have underperformed. No side has advanced beyond the quarter finals, in 1998 and 2006, while several groups of players identified as world beaters have failed to live up to expectations.
Be it positive drugs tests, bizarre decisions from the bench or plain bad luck, the fates have conspired to keep a third Jules Rimet Trophy away from Buenos Aires for almost a quarter of a century.
In 2014, however, the Albiceleste will arrive in better shape than ever. The following are reasons why supporters of the nation believe their long wait will finally be over.
They Have Lionel Messi
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The mere presence of the four-time Ballon d'Or winner and unofficial best player in the world is enough to make defences tremble in fear. The Barcelona wizard is Argentine through and through, and after years of disappointment with the Seleccion, he has improved immeasurably on the international stage.
Messi has revelled in the extra responsibility handed to him by Alejandro Sabella, along with the captain's armband when the coach took over in 2011. The ex-Estudiantes man's tactics, joining Lio with Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero up front, have also seen the No. 10 enjoy the same attacking freedom he has in Barcelona, with devastating results.
A hat trick last time round against Guatemala moved Messi clear of Diego Maradona's goal tally for Argentina, a key psychological milestone for the man forever burdened with comparisons between himself and the controversial genius.
If La Pulga can lift the trophy in Brazil, that debate over who was the best Argentine player of all time will surely be put to a final rest.
They Are Playing Close to Home
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Travelling to Brazil will be a piece of cake for the Argentina faithful, who in 2010 had to undergo all sorts of financial hardships and unforeseen misfortunes to make the trip to South Africa.
The presence of the World Cup in their neighbouring nation will ensure a strong presence from the famously fanatical support, which could prove a vital psychological boost for Messi and Co. History also suggests that when the tournament visits the American continent, the Albiceleste will be strong contenders.
Both of their triumphs, in 1978 (as hosts) and 1986 (in Mexico), came when the competition was disputed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Add to that a final appearance at the very first edition, in 1930 played across the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay, and you can see that the Argentines enjoy staying close to home.
The Defence Is Improving
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Diego Maradona's Argentina team of 2010 was capable of playing some outstanding attacking football. Unfortunately for the World Cup legend, however, this was not quite enough to hide some glaring deficiencies further down the field.
That 4-0 drubbing to Germany hurt the Albiceleste, but three years down the line the defence is a different prospect. Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez have been forging a useful partnership in the middle, and in the last eight qualifiers only five goals have been conceded.
The back four is not yet a well-drilled machine; work needs to be done before the World Cup if they are to face the likes of Spain and Germany and come out intact. But the base is there, and Alejandro Sabella has plenty of raw material to work with in the next 12 months.
The Coach Has Transformed the Team
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Throughout the last few World Cup campaigns, choices made from the coaching team have had a habit of backfiring for the Argentines.
Marcelo Bielsa's reliance on an unfit Juan Sebastian Veron as the axis of his 2002 side contributed to a disastrous exit at the group stage. Jose Pekerman, meanwhile, provoked the ire of a nation when he pulled off Juan Roman Riquelme in the decisive stages of 2006's quarter final against Germany.
The less said about Diego Maradona's kamikaze tactics or Daniel Passarella's refusal to pick players with long hair or piercings, the better perhaps.
Sabella, on the other hand, has made mostly right calls since taking over at the helm in 2011. Lionel Messi is better than ever and scoring for fun, while the current coach is the first since Pekerman to find that crucial balance between showing off attacking prowess and keeping the net safe at the other end.
They Have Already Beaten Brazil
In the minds of the Argentine public, there is only one possible outcome for the imminent World Cup. A packed Maracana, a balmy day in Rio de Janeiro and Argentina taking on Brazil in the final.
Luckily, Messi's team have already shown they have the measure of the hosts with a 4-3 victory back in 2012.
Ok, so it was only a friendly. And we must also not overlook the fact that, despite playing a predominately Under-23 side, Brazil still managed to put three past a full strength Albiceleste and almost push for victory.
But what stays in the mind is Lionel Messi's immaculate dismantling of the defence as he raced to a glorious hat trick. For the Albiceleste faithful, there is no doubt whatsoever that he can repeat those heroics in 2014 and down the old enemy in their own backyard.