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 By Tim Vickery

Jorge Sampaoli must build Argentina around Lionel Messi

After their runners-up finish in 2014, the ESPN FC crew assess Lionel Messi and Argentina's chances of lifting the World Cup in Russia.
With the clock ticking on Lionel Messi's international career, Ian Darke poses the question whether Argentina have enough firepower to win the World Cup.
It goes without saying that Lionel Messi is Argentina's only hope. Here's just how much he meant during their rocky World Cup qualifying campaign.

While many in Europe might have the opinion that Jorge Sampaoli is the best coach of the 32 who are taking teams to the World Cup, not many in Argentina would share the same view.

There are two reasons for this. First, he made his name abroad, specifically with the Chilean national team, and took over as Argentina coach last year with no significant track record in the country, which is always inclined to bring a wary feeling to one of the world's proudest footballing cultures.

The second reason regards results; Sampaoli's side have collapsed to some embarrassing defeats and look absurdly dependent on Lionel Messi. Indeed, when he says that the team is more Messi's than his own, it is a mere recognition of fact.

But over the next few weeks the coach has a vital task of housing Messi within a coherent structure, one solid enough for the star to shine. If Sampaoli can do it, then he may prove himself worthy of the praise heaped upon him from those outside Argentina.

Argentina's problems, it is true, pre-date his arrival. He became the country's third coach in a traumatic qualification campaign for that very reason and these problems once again made themselves apparent in the drawing up of the squad that will travel to Russia.

Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup on five separate occasions. More important than the titles, though, was the production line of talent feeding players through to senior side. Over the last decade, though, the country's youth sides have been very poor and this is having consequences for the senior ranks, especially in defensive positions.

Lionel Messi, left, is Argentina's undoubted star but can Jorge Sampaoli, right, fit the right pieces around him?

By the end of the World Cup, 14 of the 23-man squad will have passed 30 years of age. There are small clusters of younger players, including some attacking midfielders and a couple of strikers, but only three players are under 25: Pablo Dybala (just), Cristian Pavon and Giovani Lo Celso.

The obvious comparison is with Uruguay, who have a core of eight that dates all the way back to the 2010 World Cup. However, with the kind of excellence at Under-20 level that Argentina used to display, they also count on eight players under 25, many of whom already have key positions in the starting lineup.

Argentina's backline has been a problem since he took over for Sampaoli, whose style of play is based on intense pressing, with a high defensive line. With Chile he had the players to carry out this approach, which had already been implanted by Marcelo Bielsa.

But with Argentina, did Sampaoli have the resources available to him to use such a high-risk model? The answer has been an emphatic "no." The lack of defensive pace and dearth of quality full-backs have been dismally apparent, while some experiments have clearly not worked.

For example, young right-back Fabian Bustos was first choice for friendlies against Italy and Spain in March. However. he did not even make the extended World Cup list of 35. Instead another veteran, Christian Ansaldi of Torino, has been hurriedly incorporated into the squad in the hope that he can cover both full-back positions.

The main plus point for Argentina is that Messi should be fresher than he has been for recent international tournaments, especially the last World Cup. With Barcelona wrapping up the Spanish league title early and having been knocked out of the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage for the third straight year, Sampaoli's star should have gas left in the tank for what is probably his last chance to win the World Cup.

Meanwhile, the news on the recovery of Sergio Aguero is promising, as is the fact that a coach as talented as Sampaoli has several weeks to work with his players; that should surely result in significant improvement.

There is an eerie similarity with the Brazil squad, named last week. Both have have domestically-based players and one in China, in addition to 19 in Europe, with the Premier League providing the largest contingent (six in both cases).

But Brazil have a consolidated model of play, whereas Argentina must discover one in the next month or so. With the perspective of attacking brilliance mixed with a risky style and potentially porous defence, they should be one of the most fascinating teams to follow in the World Cup.

Argentina's World Cup squad 

Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Willy Caballero (Chelsea), Franco Armani (River Plate)

Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolas Taglafico (Ajax), Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino)

Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Angel Di Maria, Giovani Lo Celso (both Paris St-Germain), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Cristian Pavon (Boca Juniors), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala (both Juventus), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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