Messi after the final (AFP)
A turbulent qualifying
campaign was rescued by a Messi hat-trick in the thin air of Quito, but there
is little margin for error in a challenging group featuring Croatia, Nigeria
and tournament debutants Iceland.
Despite an array of
world-class talent up front, only Bolivia scored fewer goals than Argentina in
South American qualifying and the importance of Messi cannot be overstated.
Jorge Sampaoli's men
won just once in eight qualifiers without him and lost to both Nigeria (4-2)
and Spain (6-1) in pre-tournament friendlies with the Barcelona forward
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic
spearhead a Croatian side that finished runners-up in qualifying behind Iceland
-- the two sides split their head-to-head meetings -- before overpowering
Greece in the play-offs to seal a fifth finals appearance in six attempts.
Juventus striker Mario
Mandzukic is the team's primary goal scoring threat and will have a key role to
play if Croatia are to advance beyond the group stage for the first time since
finishing third at the 1998 World Cup.
failures to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, a youthful Nigeria outfit --
featuring the likes of Premier League trio Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and
Wilfred Ndidi -- reinvigorated under the experienced Gernot Rohr, punched their
ticket to Russia with a game to spare.
Euro 2016 darlings Iceland
proved their shock run to the quarter-finals in France was no fluke after
topping a qualifying section that included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey to
become the smallest nation to compete at a World Cup.