No, it wasn’t anything like the 6-1 humiliation from 2009, but Argentina’s recent 2-0 loss to Bolivia in La Paz was a setback for a group of guys that can only be described as the nearly men of Argentina’s national team history. Simply put, they’re the golden generation who seem to load to 99 percent and then crash. And yes, there’s no guarantee that Argentina will qualify for Russia 2018, but read on anyway because this squad’s recent history needs to be analysed in the event that they do qualify.

Indeed, the team that took the field at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet in Bolivia in March was a less sexy one due to suspensions. Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia and Nicolás Otamendi all had received yellows in their prior match against Chile and were unable to play. But regardless of the superstar absentees, many thought that Argentina still had enough to beat ninth place Bolivia. They still boasted superior talent despite the harsh physical effects of playing at such a high altitude. As it happened, though, they lost.

We tried to be the protagonists against Bolivia; we were a slightly better in the second half. Bolivia won well. We have to think about what is coming. We are alive and dream about qualifying for the World Cup,” said manager Edgardo Bauza after the match, the man who replaced Tata Martino last summer. Keep in mind that this was a man who, in the match prior; an unconvincing 1-0 over Chile, said: “I’m happy, the match went as planned, we played a great game.”

His puzzling remarks didn’t sit well on the home front, and Bauza was a man under pressure. To make matters worse, rumours also started to circulate after the Bolivia defeat that the Argentina Football Association had pulled the plug on Bauza.

He, like many other managers, boasted technically gifted players, even without the superstars against Bolivia, but couldn’t string together consistent results. After a victory over Uruguay in Bauza’s first 2018 World Cup qualifier, Argentina went four matches without a win and have been inconsistent ever since.

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With that said, if the CONMEBOL results of the past nine months indicate anything, it is that the Seleção are flying highest under Tite and that La Albiceleste are lost and don’t look anything like World Cup contenders. Lastly, it also revealed that Bauza was not the right tactician to lead Argentina. Unsurprisingly, he was sacked in April and his tenure was yet another nail in the coffin of failure for La Albiceleste.

But what lies ahead for Argentina at Russia 2018 – if they qualify – and can they still be considered favorites or contenders?

Their recent qualifying matches have seen them look average at best and their recent history of competitive tournaments has ended with many Argentines heartbroken. To those who have lived away from recent international football, Argentina’s famed generation has walked a harsh line of defeats in recent years, often by the slimmest of margins in the final stages of tournaments; three to be exact. So, hypothetically, if the Argentine Football Association rebuilt the squad tomorrow, taking out all the biggest names, they’d likely be remembered as the expensive second-place finishers.

The generation that boasted arguably better technical talent, on paper, than the two Argentine World Cup-winning sides before them, would be shelved with sides of the past that nearly achieved glory.

Currently, however, they are not just failing to reach their objectives, they’re underachieving by larger margins; they’re in fifth place with 22 points, just one point behind Chile. Only four spots are automatically qualified in CONMEBOL and fifth place yields a playoff spot. Numerically, they don’t look as unlikely to qualify for Russia 2018 as they did at the start of 2017 – they’ll likely make it to Russia. Regardless of that, the team is struggling, they look lost, but more importantly, they look mentally fatigued.

It seems as though many in the squad are weighed down by a tangible notion of what could have been, and that they’ve deserved more. The final scores of those three straight final defeats are in memory for those in the dressing room. But with club football and the ever-changing landscape of the modern footballer, it is likely that they step onto pitches with their minds dwelling more on their evening activities than on past heartbreak.

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Perhaps there’s something else that weighs on their minds, a crippling familiarity with each other and the judgmental media narrative that breeds contempt and hinders their effectiveness.

How long can you sweat and bleed with a group of footballers, nearly reach your winning desires, fail for the world to see, for the world to judge football’s greatest player – your colleague – and then take on a task of getting to yet another tournament? It surely has to become old for many of the veterans on the team. They’re also a generation whose managers have consistently struggled to get all the talent to play consistent attacking football. So in addition to their mental fragility at the moment, there are still the prevalent issues of old within this team.

As is, La Albiceleste is certainly not a contender to lift the trophy at Russia 2018. They’re struggling against poor South American sides, Brazil has recently battered them, Paraguay has beaten them, and top European teams would smell blood as well. Looking at what Tite has done with Brazil, you can see how Argentina needs a good footballing mind to bring the pieces together. 

They could certainly use a modern Carlos Bilardo-like coach to find the right system for Messi and his brigade to flourish consistently. Bilardo’s switch to a 3-5-2 in 1986 found the right balance between staying organised in defence and allowing Diego Maradona to run wild in attack. 

Speaking of history, if you know your Argentine football folklore, then you know that the best modern coach that comes from a similar pragmatic Bilardo philosophy is Diego Simeone. Unfortunately for many – and for this scribe – at the time of this writing, it seems highly unlikely but there is another top European-based manager who could create an attacking juggernaut with the tools La Albiceleste have, and that man is Jorge Sampaoli

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The former Chile manager would take the best characteristics of his side and maximise their creative output. Fortunately for South American football romantics, AFA president Claudio Tapia, per ESPN, said that Sampaoli “is the chosen coach”. So there’s a very real possibility that he could take the reins, and that is good news for a squad that needs a fresh and structured game plan. Argentina’s odds for success in qualifying and competing with the world’s best at Russia 2018 would improve significantly under the Sevilla coaches watchful eyes.

That familiarity and mental fragility mentioned earlier could be an obstacle for Sampaoli, but he’d undoubtedly be more qualified from a tactical point of view than Bauza was. If you look at Argentina’s squad, and you look at Sampaoli’s tactics, it’s a match made in heaven.

There’s also the case to be made that Argentina, despite having somewhat of an ageing squad, will still have quality depth in attack come Russia 2018. Paulo Dybala, who has enjoyed a massive 2016/17 season with Juventus, is the future of the national team. His recent partnership and chemistry with club teammate Gonzalo Higuaín could blossom in the national side with the right formation, and it will be a good experiment for the next manager. Sergio Agüero will most likely travel if Argentina qualify, but Dybala could offer more than the Manchester City star if he plays behind Higuaín.

There’s also the promising young Atlético Madrid forward Angel Correa, who, at 22, enjoys a solid amount of minutes as a super sub under Simeone and is very close to Carlos Tevez in quality and style. Correa and Dybala are the two most promising standouts as you move further up field in an Argentine team. These two players should very well improve next campaign and could add to an already dangerous Albiceleste attack and give the managers options. There’s always Ángel Di María and Ezequiel Lavezzi too.

In closing, Argentina’s familiarity with one another and mental state under such constant failures could be the biggest obstacle to qualifying for, yet alone winning the World Cup in 2018.  But with the right manager in charge of a side that still has talent and is still churning out depth, Russia 2018 may very well see Messi hoist what Maradona did in 1986, and their current generation would be remembered without saying, ‘what if’ 

By Carlo Valladares    @C_V_News