With the XXI edition of the World Cup having dawned, Russia will be the denouement for a number of competing nations after four years of preparation.
For Belgium, 2018 could be the year of the Red Devils in the midst of their blossoming golden generation. For England, there’s a chance to erase the memories of failures since 2014 with a young and exuberant team. And for France, there’s a chance for Europe’s greatest young talents to shine on the biggest stage.
In the case of Argentina, the stakes are no less heady. Despite retaining arguably the most potent offensive unit in world football, Albiceleste arrive in Russia having scraped through by the skin of their teeth, after a qualifying campaign wracked with uncertainty.
Indeed, their precarious position puts star man Gonzalo Higuain under far greater scrutiny after a night four years ago the Juventus striker will want to forget.
Having booked their place into the final on enemy territory four years ago in Brazil, Alejandro Sabella’s men fell at the last hurdle at the Maracana in the country’s capital, in what have be a dagger to the heart of Brazilian football, seeing their fierce rivals lift the World Cup trophy on their own soil – just days after an ignominious thrashing at the hand of the champions-to-be Germany.
In what was alway likely to be a tight game, both Die Mannschaft and the Argentinians scrambled for openings and it was Higuain who was afforded the best chance, only for the number nine to fluff his lines on the grandest stage.
It had already been a frugal tournament for the then 26-year-old, having notched just the one goal against Belgium in the quarter-finals, as Lionel Messi again largely carried the South Americans on neighbouring turf.
With the final mid-way through the opening period, Higuain was presented with a gift of a chance, as Brazilian and German fans collectively hid behind the sofa in horror.
As Mats Hummels attempted to clear German lines poorly, Tony Kroos intervened to nod the ball back toward Manuel Neuer in the goal. His header was however, woefully mis-weighted and bounced directly into the path of Higuain who was clear through on goal.
With a disbelieving forward baring down on goal with Neuer, Higuain snatched at the shot however, and scuffed his shot wide. As chances go in World Cup finals, it was gilt-edged.
Having a goal ruled out later in the game for offside, it was a evening of frustration for the Argentina, who was later forced off with injury after a collision with Neuer.
Four years on from that night in Rio de Janeiro. Argentina arrive in Russia under the sword of Damocles. Despite boasting an attacking quarter to make any opposing nation green with envy on Messi, Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Kun Aguero, Jorge Sampaoli’s men may struggle to advance from the group stages into the last 16.
The Chilean steward Sampaoli has struggled to accommodate his best in his system, and defensively there remain huge questions over their mentality.
That has heaped the pressure on Higuain to deliver this summer, with Inter striker Mauro Icardi – who has scored 20+ Serie A goals in Italy in the three of the last four seasons – omitted from the squad.
With Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia to contend with in pool D’s ‘Group of Death’, an Argentine cutting edge is imperative in Sampaoli’s system that still leaves many questions unanswered, with Higuain having to shoulder the burden of his exuberant price-tag in Italy.
If failure in the Maracana was a painful memory, a repeat in the group stages is unthinkable for Argentina but is nonetheless a very realistic scenario to contend with. Whilst Messi will the source of hope for many in one particular corner on South America, it is perhaps Higuain under the greatest pressure to step this summer.