Ranking the Argentina Players on Their World Cup Group-Stage Form
The Argentina national team have made an efficient, if not explosive, start to the 2014 World Cup. The side coached by Alejandro Sabella were predicted to have a kind first round in Group F, and while they struggled more than most expected, three wins out of three was par for the course from Lionel Messi and his team-mates.
But who impressed the most during the opening victories over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria? Who has their place secured as the World Cup enters its decisive stages, and who is nervously looking over their shoulder after underperforming?
Taking into account individual performances across the time they have spent on the field, the 14 Argentine players who have clocked a significant amount of time in Brazil are ranked here.
Unless stated otherwise, all statistics from FIFA.com
The following players in the Argentina squad have played less than 30 minutes over the three group games, and therefore have not accrued enough time on the pitch to be ranked:
Jose Maria Basanta
14. Maxi Rodriguez
Made one appearance in the group stage, playing the first half in midfield against Bosnia as part of Sabella's short-lived experiment with 5-3-2. Was dragged off after 45 ineffective minutes and has not featured since.
13. Hugo Campagnaro
Forty-five shaky minutes against Bosnia have been Hugo Campagnaro's sole contribution to the Albiceleste World Cup effort. Like Maxi, he paid the price for Sabella's tactical prevarications in the team's opener.
12. Federico Fernandez
So far, Napoli's central defender has been the weakest link of a flimsy Argentina back line. In the air, Federico Fernandez has been strong, but his positioning and reading of the game have left an awful lot to desire in the World Cup.
Fernandez watched helplessly as Vedad Ibisevic slipped behind his cumbersome shoulders to score Bosnia's first-ever World Cup goal, and also suffered dreadfully at the hands of Ahmed Musa against Nigeria. He looks out of his depth at this level, and must improve rapidly.
11. Gonzalo Higuain
The first sight of Gonzalo Higuain during the 2014 World Cup was an unfamiliar one. The Napoli star and scorer of nine goals during qualifying watched the first half of the opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina on the bench, due to coach Alejandro Sabella's ill-fated experiment with five at the back.
Pipita started the subsequent two matches, but he has shown little of the killer instinct so innate in his game. But it is not all down to Higuain; the No. 9 has also suffered from a distinct lack of service throughout the World Cup.
10. Sergio Aguero
Sergio Aguero's World Cup campaign is in serious danger of being curtailed. After limping off in the first half, as reported by the Daily Mirror, El Kun suffered a muscle tear which almost certainly rules him out of any of the knock-out matches.
It is a shame, but perhaps not such a great surprise. Aguero looked out of sorts throughout the opening matches, and a lack of physical sharpness could be responsible. The Manchester City man had a minimal effect on his side's attacking potency, meaning that his 2014 World Cup was a massive disappointment.
9. Pablo Zabaleta
Coming off a Premier Division title with Manchester City, right-back Pablo Zabaleta was expected to be the cornerstone of the Argentine defence through the World Cup. But so far in the competition, he has put in displays well under expectations.
Zabaleta has looked lost at times, contributing little to Argentina's offensive phases and failing to mark with the necessary figure when his side are on the back foot. The way that Ahmed Musa got behind the full-back during the last clash against Nigeria was especially alarming for the Albiceleste.
8. Fernando Gago
Prior to the tournament, Fernando Gago's fitness was a big concern for the Argentina team after an interrupted season with local giants Boca Juniors. Injury has not seemed to be affecting the creative midfielder, but at times his head has appeared to be somewhere else.
With a pass completion rate of over 91 percent, Gago has been doing his job in the middle; but the spark, the risky balls that can unlock defences have been painfully missing.
7. Angel Di Maria
After two indifferent performances, finally against Nigeria we saw glimpses of the real Angel Di Maria. Well under-par in the opening two matches, the Real Madrid star showed that if he is given space to maraud, he can put defences under extreme pressure.
Against the Super Eagles, Fideo helped create the first goal with a brilliant late surge into the box, his shot parried into the path of Messi who converted with ease. It is that Di Maria, not the sudbued figure against Bosnia and Iran, who could barely make a pass, that needs to lead Argentina into the knockout stages.
6. Sergio Romero
If there are any doubts around the Argentine national team in spite of their 100 percent World Cup, they revolve around the men at the back. Three goals conceded in as many group games is not exactly all-conquering form, and Ahmed Musa in particular showed their vulnerability to quick, direct attacks.
But goalkeeper Sergio Romero at least has been surprising a few critics with his displays in Brazil. The Monaco player could do little on any of the goals, and weighed in with key stops against Bosnia and Iran to help his team to victory.
5. Ezequiel Garay
Argentina's most consistent central defender surprised the world ahead of Wednesday's Nigeria game, when a sensational transfer to Russia emerged in the press. Ezequiel Garay, according to The Independent, will play the coming season with Zenit St. Petersburg after agreeing to leave Benfica.
It is no surprise that the Russians would be interested in his signature. Garay has kept up his impressive domestic form, providing stability at the back and helping to set Marcos Rojo up for the winner against the Super Eagles.
4. Ezequiel Lavezzi
The Paris Saint-Germain forward looks full of energy for this World Cup. Lavezzi has played little more than an hour so far, but he has already made a big impact on the team with his relaxed demeanour and seemingly endless reserves of energy.
After laying on Messi's dramatic winner against Iran, Pocho drove Nigeria crazy with his incursions down the wing, fighting for every ball and making a nuisance of himself across the pitch. There was barely a blade of grass he did not cover after coming on for Sergio Aguero, and if El Kun is ruled out, he could have the perfect stage to become a national hero.
3. Marcos Rojo
Derided as the weak link in Argentina's defence before the World Cup started, Marcos Rojo has done his very best to prove doubters wrong. From a rabona clearance in the opening match to a somewhat fortuitous winner against Nigeria, the Sporting man has been entertaining to watch.
Solid in defence, the real improvement in Rojo's game has come from his bursts up the field. The left-back has tried hard to provide support to Di Maria out on the flank, and while his crossing still needs work, his heart is in the right place.
2. Javier Mascherano
The former River Plate, Corinthians and Liverpool star's work often goes unnoticed compared to his more spectacular international colleagues. But it would be criminal to underestimate what Javier Mascherano has done so far in a very impressive start to the World Cup.
The 30-year-old has played every minute so far of the campaign, and a passing success rate of 89.4 percent with a total of 278 completed balls make him one of the best distributors in the entire tournament. Add to that a total of 23 recovered balls over the three matches, and one can see why Masche is so vital in the Albiceleste engine room.
1. Lionel Messi
There is no possible argument over who has been the most impressive player for Argentina so far. Having failed to score in 2010, Lionel Messi smashed a brilliant four goals in the group stage to spearhead his team's path to the last 16.
Two individual efforts, a perfectly placed free kick and an intelligent rebound from Angel Di Maria's shot made up Messi's tally, making him the first Argentine to score in all three first-round matches since Oreste Corbatta in 1958.
La Pulga took up a much more advanced position against Nigeria, and he was rewarded with a brace to take down the dangerous African challengers. Argentina fans will hope that their idol keeps up the same efforts throughout the knockouts.