The 2018 Russia World Cup has officially begun. Well, not really, but its draw was conducted today at the Kremlin, and determined that Argentina will be a part of Group D, along with Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria.
Jorge Sampaoli’s team will make its debut in the world’s most important footballing competition on June 16, 2018, against Iceland, at Moscow’s the Otkrytie Arena. It will be the first appearance at the World Cup for the European team, which nonetheless has been proving its worth at the global stage in the last international competitions. It reached the Euro’s quarterfinals last year, beating England along the way. And it qualified to Russia after winning its group in the European qualifiers, relegating Croatia – a tougher team, at least on paper – to the second place.
Argentina will play its second match precisely against Croatia on Thursday, June 21 at the stadio de Nizhni Nóvgorod. This should be the most difficult match of the group, as this European team has world-class players such as Luka Modric and Iván Rakitic, who every shine week at Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively. But taking into account the fact that Iceland had a better performance in the qualifiers, we won’t know if this will effectively be toughest match of the three until the ball starts rolling.
The Albiceleste will play its last match of the group on June 26, in the city of Saint Petersburg, against Nigeria. It makes sense, as it seems like a World Cup is not such if Argentina doesn’t face the African team in this stage: they have done it three times in the last four competitions. The good thing is that Argentina has won every single time. The bad one is that the last precedent is not the best. Sampaoli’s eleven faced Nigeria a couple weeks ago in Russia and lost 4-2 despite having started 2-0 up in the score.
At least on paper, La Selección has a relatively easy group. But at the end of the day Sampaoli’s team will have to improve the level it displayed in the last match of the qualifiers and the recent international friendlies if it really intends to be a serious contestant to the title.
Should it qualify to the knockout round, Argentina would face Group C’s first or second best team. France, Australia, Peru and Denmark, then, are the country’s potential rivals in the round of 16. And it would only clash with Germany, which has beat and consequently outed La Selección in the last three World Cups, in a hypothetical final. Same thing would happen with Brazil.
“I see a group that is quite easy, considering the teams that we got. But Argentina has to improve, it can’t continue playing so badly,” said Diego Maradona from the stage when consulted about his opinion, in what was a not subtle piece of criticism against the coach.
Sampaoli had the opportunity to answer when he talked to press after the event, and took it: “I hope we can improve with time, and play better. I know the group we got. Besides, we have the best player in the world and history,” he said in a not veiled retaliation, putting Lionel Messi over his critic. Regarding the group itself, he said: “our rivals get to the World Cup with few obligations, but a lot of enthusiasm. Croatia’s midfield is very strong. Nigeria is unpredictable,” he concluded.