Argentina’s ‘final’ comes early as Messi and co prepare to salvage the World Cup campaign

Poor Argentina: The team’s camp is a converted women’s home at the University of Qatar. Migrant workers who guard the place like a presidential palace wither in the sun. The Dutch are a hostel further but might as well be a planet away given the isolation of each team.

Argentina’s players and staff are locked away in this cream-colored barracks-style building where they spend endless hours pondering the risk of being eliminated from the World Cup after their humiliating opening defeat by Saudi Arabia. Argentine media are branding Saturday’s second group game against Mexico as a ‘final’. Lose and the team’s campaign and Lionel Messi’s 17 years in the blue and white are effectively over.

That Albiceleste ended up in a 36-game unbeaten streak here, but like so many teams at World Cups, their first exposure to tournament reality has forced them to cast aside all their certainties. The hostel is buzzing with conversations between players and staff about what needs to be done. Coach Lionel Scaloni plans several changes from his original starting XI. Can Argentina save themselves or are they doomed due to their inherent mistakes?

The first thing to say is that they were unlucky to lose 2-1 to the Saudis. Expected goals, a metric measuring the quality of a team’s chances, were reported at 2.45 for Argentina and just 0.21 for Saudi Arabia Analysis group Statsbomb. But the Saudis scored twice from unlikely positions. To conclude from the result that Argentina is a bad team would be scoreboard journalism. They have merits: Messi remains the best player in the world, the nimble goalscorer Lautaro Martinez can serve as an opponent, and in most positions Argentina has players, if not from world football’s elite, then at least from the upper middle class.

But even if they improve, they won’t be the world-class team they thought they could be just a week ago. Their isolation from cutting-edge European football has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and UEFA’s creation of a Nations League, further limiting Argentina’s opportunities to face European sides.

The experience of their players at European clubs is not enough. Apart from Messi. Arriving at Barcelona at the age of 13, most grew up in Argentine football at least into their late teens, and when they all come together without the souring influence of foreign teammates and coaches, they showcase the collective flaws of their country’s football education. This shockingly uncreative team is more Argentinian than global: skilled, tough, undynamic and playing a gear below teams like Spain, France or England.

The Argentines liked the style of their side until Tuesday’s defeat. La Nuestra (“Our”) they call it, a horizontal, slow-paced game dating back to the great San Lorenzo club teams of the 1940s (and still revered by Argentina’s Pope Francis).

But like the last World Cup, Argentina’s defense against Saudi Arabia struggled to see and execute routine forward passes. Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, a rare player who could reliably support Messi, will miss the World Cup through injury. Without him, their sluggish advances give opponents tons of time to cement a wall.

Argentina have long longed for Messi to do it alone – to be a soloist like Diego Maradona, who led an equally mediocre Argentine side to the 1986 World Cup title. But Barcelona transformed Messi into a European collectivist footballer looking to unite with others. Alternatively, Argentina wished he was a playmaker with 100 touches per game, like Juan Román Riquelme in the previous one Albiceleste Generation. But Messi can’t do that either: At 35, he’s treating what will probably be his last tournament as an endurance fight.

To win it, he would have to go through six more games in 24 days. As with his clubs in recent years, he conserves his energy and only demands the ball when he sees an opportunity for a crucial moment. With Argentina creating few opportunities, he rarely uses the phone and mostly just watches his teammates at work. Let’s hope he drew energy from Wednesday’s visit to the hostel of his entire clan – parents, brothers, wife and sons.

Against Mexico, Scaloni is expected to overhaul his defence, throwing out disappointing full-backs Nicolas Tagliafico and Nahuel Molina and bringing in Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez, who is able to find the sorely missed pass from the back. Ironically, their Mexican opponent is coached by an Argentinian: Tata Martino, former coach of his home country and confidant of the Messis from their hometown of Rosario.

A group match at a pop-up stadium in Doha would not be the end of Messi’s international career, but as he has learned at four previous tournaments, World Cups are cruel.

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