Argentina was in trouble until the final round of South American qualifying for the World Cup, and needed Lionel Messi to seal his country’s place at soccer’s global showcase.
Now comes the really difficult part. Given Argentina’s World Cup tradition, the 3-1 win earned against Ecuador with Messi’s hat trick was little short of mandatory. But coach Jorge Sampaoli still has a lot to fix in a squad that almost made Argentina miss a World Cup for the first time in 48 years.
Here is a look at the issues facing the team:
DEPENDENCE ON MESSI
At a crucial moment, Argentina needed Messi to step in and avoid what could have been a humiliating exit. And he certainly delivered, with his three goals against Ecuador worth a place at next year’s finals.
Russia might be Messi’s last World Cup, and it will definitely be his final attempt at the peak of his powers. At the 2022 tournament in Qatar, the Argentine will be 35 years old.
Regardless of his numerous titles with Barcelona, he has still to win a major one for Argentina.
“The nationality of the best player in the world is luckily Argentine”, Sampaoli told reporters. “Messi does not owe a World Cup to Argentina, it is football that owes a World Cup to him. We have the chance to help, he is the best player ever.”
The dependence on Messi has been proportional to the lack of goals from other players.
Argentina scored only 19 goals in its 18 games in South American qualifying, tying with Paraguay for the second-worst record. Messi scored seven, and no other player added more than two goals.
In the standings, South American leader Brazil and second-place Uruguay scored 41 and 32 goals, respectively. Messi’s hat trick in Quito gave Argentina its first goals in open play since a 3-0 victory over Colombia in November 2016.
Sampaoli replaced veteran striker Gonzalo Higuain for Boca Juniors’ target man Dario Benedetto, and he has also brought in players that had been overlooked, like Mauro Icardi and Alejandro Gomez.
None of them did any better. Sergio Aguero missed the last two rounds due to injury. He and Angel Di Maria will have to step up in Russia, while Sampaoli will also have to find a way to use Juventus starlet Paulo Dybala.
DOUBTS ABOUT MASCHERANO
Argentina also faces problems in defense, despite conceding only 16 goals, the second-lowest number in South American qualifying. Veteran defender Javier Mascherano seems to be at the end of his impressive run at 33 years of age.
It was a mistake by Mascherano that allowed Ecuador to open the scoring on Tuesday and he has been frequently replaced by Sampaoli.
Moving Mascherano back to a midfield role seems unlikely, as Enzo Perez, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega have all done well in recent games.
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero is also on good form despite being a reserve at Manchester United. Defenders Nicolas Otamendi, Gabriel Mercado and Marcos Acuna have similarly earned praised for their performances.
Sampaoli was the team’s third coach during qualifying, with the former Chile and Sevilla manager taking over four months ago after Edgardo Bauza was fired. Bauza stayed on the job for only eight matches, after succeeding Gerardo Martino.
Argentina never used the same starting lineup twice in its 18 matches, a statistic which many believe has made it less effective as a team and more reliant on the individual talent of Messi.
Now Sampaoli has eight months to find the right partners for Messi and help him claim soccer’s most coveted trophy.