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Argentina: Five players to watch in Qatar

By FIFA

Argentinian hopes will be higher than they have been for many a year when they run out at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.

Four years ago, following their last-16 elimination at the hands of France at Russia 2018, the outlook was bleak for a side that had to replace the generation that finished runners-up at Brazil 2014 and embark on a transitional period, the duration and outcome of which were shrouded in uncertainty.

Doubts about the players brought in to replace the old breed only seemed to be confirmed in the months after Russia 2018, with several well-known and experienced coaches turning down the Argentina job.

One man who did not rule himself out was Lionel Scaloni, who eventually took on the impossible task and began to make things happen, overhauling the squad and building a side and a squad that rallied around the figurehead, Lionel Messi.

After Scaloni had found new men for each position and given them time to bed in, La Albiceleste then went and ended a 28-year quest for major silverware at the Copa America in 2021.

Backing that performance up with a near-perfect Qatar 2022 qualification campaign, followed by a comprehensive win over European champions Italy in the Finalissima.

With one of the best players of all time still leading the way, a coach who has his feet firmly on the ground and has grown in stature during his tenure, and a pool of players ready to give their all for their hero.

Argentina are sure to be one of the favourites at the world finals later this year. Here are five of the players well worth watching when Qatar 2022 kicks off.

Lionel Messi | Position: Forward | Age: 35

The World Cup is the one major trophy the Argentinian has never had his hands on. Seven years after coming up just short at Brazil 2014.

The legendary Messi gained a significant measure of consolation by winning the Copa America, his first title with the senior national team.

La Pulga (‘The Flea’) will now go in search of the biggest title of them all as the icon of a rejuvenated side and still one of the best players in the world, despite the passage of time and the fact he is now midway through his 30s.

Though he might lack the pace and stamina he once had, Messi has modified his game and remains a matchwinner thanks in great part to his ageless left foot.

Scaloni has come up with a system that frees him of all responsibility bar the need to create, a role he fulfils as his side’s main provider and most decisive player.

Not everything revolves around him, however. Profitable new partnerships and understandings have been forged, relieving the Paris Saint-Germain man of some of the creative burden and of the need to take part in every single move.

Argentina will arrive in Qatar with their least ‘Messi-dependent’ side since he made his international debut in August 2005, though they can take comfort from the fact that their eternal superhero is a ready as ever to don his cape and come to the rescue.

Emiliano Martinez | Position: Goalkeeper | Age: 29

Argentina’s first-choice keeper had to wait while before getting an opportunity that he seized with both hands.

After joining Arsenal in 2010, he was farmed out on loan six times before an injury to the then Gunners No1 Bernd Leno in June 2020 gave the Argentinian a long-awaited chance to show what he could do.

His performances in a struggling Gunners side caught the eye and went a long way to helping the north London club lift the FA Cup that year.

When Leno regained full fitness, Aston Villa paid out £20m for the services of Martinez, who quickly became the Birmingham club’s main man and whose name started to crop up in relation to the Argentina No. 1 jersey.

The search for a successor to Sergio Romero had proved fruitless to that point. Wilfredo Caballero’s costly error in the group match against Croatia at Russia 2018 had cost him his place, while River Plate star Franco Armani had failed to convince.

In the meantime, Martinez was playing a starring role in the powerful Premier League.

He eventually got his chance in the lead-up to last year’s Copa America, where he went on to perform wonders. “We’ve got Dibu and he’s amazing,” said Messi of Martinez after the trophy had been won.

It had taken Martinez less than two years to convince Scaloni and his coaching staff of his qualities and have the fans singing his name.

His performances soon had them comparing him to the country’s best ever keepers, including the legendary Ubaldo Matildo Fillol.

Now head and shoulders above his challengers for the jersey, Martinez will be central to Argentina’s hopes of a successful World Cup – quite a turnaround for a keeper who flew in under the radar.

Cristian Romero | Position: Defender | Age: 24

There was a time when Romero was thinking about giving up the game. The Cordoba-born defender was living out his lifelong dream of playing for his beloved Belgrano only for a disagreement with the club’s directors to throw his future in jeopardy.

He ended up moving to Italian club Genoa, the first step in his development into a mainstay of Scaloni’s side.

Romero quickly caught the eye of Juventus, who loaned him back to Genoa and then to Atalanta, where he had a big hand in the club’s surprise run to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals in 2019/20.

Voted the best defender in Serie A, he was then whisked off to the Premier League by Tottenham.

In wearing the Atalanta, Spurs and Argentina jerseys, Romero has proved his worth at the highest level. Nicknamed Cuti and a player of many attributes, he has become the defensive leader Scaloni has been looking for.

The kind of player who can change the course of a game with his interventions, the kind of player that defences can be built around. Strong of character, he has become a leader for his country.

Commanding in the air and virtually impossible to beat in one-on-one situations, Romero has the pace to cover for his team-mates’ mistakes and the skill to bring the ball out and build from the back. A susceptibility to injury is his only shortcoming.

Rodrigo de Paul | Position: Midfielder | Age: 28

Like his two partners in the Albiceleste midfield, Leandro Paredes and Giovani Lo Celso, De Paul started his career as a playmaking No10, a role none of the trio currently fulfil after undergoing several reinventions.

While Paredes is now a sublimely gifted central midfielder and Lo Celso a wide midfielder, the Atletico Madrid man has become something of a multi-purpose player, supplementing his natural talent with commitment, endless running, and determination.

After starting out as a precise passer in a playmaking role at Racing Club, De Paul moved to Valencia, where some inconsistent form led to him returning to his first club for a brief spell on loan.

His next port of call was Udinese, where he settled quickly and began producing his best football, finally establishing himself in the European game and becoming a leading light at the Italian club.

Appearing alongside Messi at the Copa America, he proved to be his ideal partner, thanks to his tireless running and creative instincts.

A driving force in the Albiceleste midfield, he nailed his place down in the team and made a telling contribution to Argentina’s biggest achievement of the last few years, providing a superb assist for Angel Di Maria in the final against Brazil.

Lautaro Martinez | Position: Forward | Age: 25

Argentina’s main goal threat of the Scaloni era. After bursting onto the scene with Racing, Martinez moved to Italy to lead the line for an Inter Milan side that was crowned 2020-21 Serie A champions thanks in no small part to his goals.

That season saw him score 25 in 49 appearances in all competitions and having now re-established his partnership with Romelu Lukaku, the ever-improving Martinez should be at the peak of his powers when Qatar 2022 comes around.

Aside from his attacking attributes, El Toro (“The Bull”) has an important role to play in Scaloni’s system as a hard-running first line of defence, helping to conserve Messi’s energy by freeing him of any defensive duties.

After missing out on a place at Russia 2018, Martinez is ready to shine in Qatar and provide the cutting edge Argentina lacked in the three finals they lost before ending their trophy drought against Brazil at the Maracana last year.

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