In Depth

World Cup favourites: why Argentina won't win in Brazil

Lionel Messi leads a fearsome strikeforce, but there are glaring weaknesses elsewhere on the pitch

Argentina head north to the World Cup in Brazil with the tag of second favourites, and it is not hard to see why. Lionel Messi leads a team that has so much attacking talent that there was not even room for Carlos Tevez in the squad.

With no Brazil to play against in qualifying Argentina made light work of the group, scoring 35 goals as they finished top of the Conmebol table, ahead of Colombia.

But despite Argentina's obvious strengths the team also has some obvious weaknesses – and a track record of underachievement. Can they buck the recent trend and give a good account of themselves as the World Cup returns to South America for the first time since Argentina hosted, and won, it in 1978?

Players to watch:No argument here, the main man for La Albiceleste is, of course, Lionel Messi, who will hope to transfer his mindboggling club form to the international stage. He will have some able lieutenants alongside him in the form of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria. Together they are known as Los Cuatro Fantasticos – the fantastic four. Elsewhere, Javier Mascherano will anchor midfield and Pablo Zabaleta will cut a dash at right-back.

Why they could win the World Cup:Any team with Messi in it must be in with a chance. And when you add the likes of Aguero, Higuain and Di Maria to the mix it starts to look frightening. 

With those four on the pitch and players of the calibre of Ezequiel Lavezzi on the bench, it's easy to see why Argentina's opponents may feel slightly intimidated. La Albiceleste have "arguably the greatest attacking strength in the world," says The Times.

Most of the squad are based in Spain and Italy, which gives them the tactical nous required at a World Cup, and, unlike the European teams, they will feel at home in South America.

The draw is also favourable, and they could well avoid playing any non-European teams until the final.

Why they might not:They may be brilliant going forward but there's a lot to desired at the back. "In defensive positions they are extremely underwhelming," says The Guardian. "Sergio Romero cannot get a game in goal for Monaco, while the centre-back Federico Fernandez and the left-back Marcos Rojo are limited footballers." 

And while a team featuring the likes of Messi, Aguero, Higuain and Di Maria may offer plenty going forward, there will be little defensive cover in midfield. A lot will depend on Mascherano, otherwise they could be overwhelmed.

Then there is the Messi factor. The best player in the world has rarely performed on the international stage. There are signs that he is getting better in the Albiceleste shirt – indeed he has 18 goals in his last 16 games for Argentina – but will he finally shine on the biggest stage of all?

Everyone is talking about the pressure Brazil will be under, but Argentina will feel their fair share of it too. The last time the tournament was held in South America, in 1978, they won it.

"There can't be a World Cup in Brazil and Argentina be humiliated and not have a great tournament," says Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. "They will have a huge pressure on them."

Unfortunately Argentina's recent record is not great. The last time they got beyond the quarter finals was 1990, and in 2002 a well fancied Albiceleste team didn't even make it out of the group stage. Since 1998 their performances have been comparable to England's.

How far can they go?They should win their weak group, which features Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran and Nigeria, and their path to the semi-finals looks relatively easy with a likely quarter final against Belgium or Portugal. Don't rule out an appearance in the final.

What the bookies think:An appearance in the last four is almost guaranteed, apparently, with odds of 10/11, and they are second favourites behind Brazil to win the trophy at 9/2.

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