(Reuters) - Argentina came close to ending their long trophy drought by reaching the World Cup final in Brazil ago but there has been little progress since then and the burden of improvement is now firmly on the shoulders of new coach Jorge Sampaoli.
The South Americans went down to an extra-time goal against Germany in the showpiece match at the Maracana in 2014 and then followed that heart-breaking loss with two consecutive defeats in the finals of the 2015 and 2016 Copa America.
Their last major success was the Copa America in 1993 but if three finals in three years from 2014 made most Argentines think the trophy drought would soon end, the South American qualifiers provided a rude awakening.
Qualifying for next year’s tournament was a struggle, only made possible by Lionel Messi’s last-gasp hat-trick in the final game against Ecuador.
A five-time World Player of the Year, Messi is the enigma at the heart of Argentina’s long run of disappointment.
The Barcelona forward has appeared disillusioned playing for his country, retiring from international football in 2016 only to reverse his decision soon after.
He is the first name on the team sheet but if Argentina are to add to the World Cups they won in 1978 and 1986 he will need support from his ageing team mates, particularly up front.
Argentina struggled to score in the qualifiers, netting just 19 goals in 18 qualifiers, with only Bolivia scoring fewer.
Since taking over in May, Sampaoli has dropped the team’s other proven scorer, Gonzalo Higuain; Juventus’ Paulo Dybala has yet to score in 12 internationals; and Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s record scorer, has spent much of his time on the bench.
Those decisions have heaped more pressure on the former Chile manager, who became Argentina’s third coach in three years when he replaced Edgardo Bauza.
They have won just four of their eight games in Sampaoli’s tenure and, most worryingly, only one of their competitive fixtures, that 3-1 win over Ecuador.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Ken Ferris