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Struggling Argentina must improve to hit heights again

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By Andrew Downie

(Reuters) – Argentina last won a major title 25 years ago and while the prospect of ending that drought has looked so close in recent years it now seems a distant prospect.

Argentina last picked up silverware at the 1993 Copa America, when Gabriel Batistuta and Diego Simeone were playing.

They reached the finals of the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 but lost all three, the first in extra-time to Germany, the other two to Chile on penalties.

Since then they have gone backwards, with the Argentine Football Association in turmoil and three national team managers in three years unable to get the best out of unquestionably one of the world’s most star-studded squads.

After settling on Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who won the Copa America with Chile in 2015, they have yet to find their groove despite having talisman Lionel Messi to call on.

One win in four competitive games tells its own story and narrow victories over World Cup hosts Russia and Italy, who have surprisingly missed out on this year’s finals, in friendlies appear less significant than hammerings by Nigeria and Spain.

“We need to learn from our mistakes,” Sampaoli said after the Spain defeat. “We need to face the music and move on.”

Quite how he plans to do that remains a mystery.

Sampaoli has been in charge for almost a year but he has yet to decide on his best team, or even his best squad.

Part of the problem is age.

Defenders Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta have not been replaced with players of the same quality and there are no new midfielders as influential as Javier Mascherano or the injured Fernando Gago.

Even up front, where Sampaoli has an embarrassment of riches, he has still to get it right.

Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria would find a place in any top European club side but at international level Argentina managed just 19 goals in 18 World Cup qualifiers.

What they do have, of course, is Messi, and any team with the Barcelona genius in their ranks will always be a candidate for silverware.

This could be the last World Cup for a player who is now into his 30s and who retired from international football in 2016 only to reverse his decision a few weeks later.

If Argentina’s prospects depended only on Messi, their fans could look forward to the World Cup with some confidence but Messi needs help. There is no guarantee he will get it.

(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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