(Updates key players after injury rules out Sergio Romero)
May 24 (Reuters) - Factbox on the Argentine national team ahead of the 2018 World Cup:
FIFA ranking: 5 (till June 7)
Argentina have played in 16 World Cup tournaments and have won the title twice — at home in 1978 and in Mexico eight years later when a Diego Maradona-inspired side got past England on their way to a thrilling 3-2 win over West Germany in the final. Argentina have also reached the final on three other occasions — at the first World Cup in 1930, in Italy in 1990 and four years ago in Brazil where they lost in extra time to Germany.
Jorge Sampaoli: Sampaoli, 58, got the job as coach only a year before the finals in Russia, taking over at a troubled time and becoming the third man to lead the team since Alejandro Sabella left after the 2014 World Cup. The diminutive coach guided Chile to their first international title, winning the Copa America in 2015 with a fast pressing style which reflects his own hyperactive pacing along the touchline. But Sampaoli has struggled to organise Argentina in the same way and one win in four competitive games, plus recent hammerings by Nigeria and Spain, show he has his work cut out.
Lionel Messi: Messi will celebrate his 31st birthday during the tournament and this could be his last chance to win the one big title he lacks. Few people doubt the five-times World Player of the Year will score goals. The big question is whether his team mates will be inspired enough to approach his level.
Gonzalo Higuain: Higuain is Argentina’s enigma, a player who seems to score at will for his club Juventus but labours to hit the target when wearing the national shirt. Higuain’s recent record for Argentina –- one goal in nine World Cup qualifiers -– is so poor that he is not even a certainty to go to Russia under Sampaoli. However, another fine season for Juve suggests Sampaoli cannot afford to leave him out. If Higuain can reproduce his club form Argentina will be dangerous.
Nicolas Otamendi: Unsung hero Otamendi is the only ever-present in Sampaoli’s line up since Argentina qualified for the World Cup back in October. The Manchester City defender provides much-needed reliability in a national side that has changed both names and formations with alarming regularity since Sampaoli took over. How he is utilised, and who will play alongside him, will be of vital importance to the double world champions.
Argentina struggled in the qualifiers and they have barely improved since, with inconsistent results and a porous defence. They lost a November friendly 4-2 against Group D opponents Nigeria and although a 2-0 win over Italy in March briefly raised their spirits, they lost 6-1 to Spain a few days later in one of their worst performances in years.
How they qualified:
Argentina booked their ticket to Russia largely due to the brilliance of Messi, who scored a hat-trick in their final game against Ecuador. The Argentines needed to win the match to guarantee qualification, and the 3-1 victory lifted them into third place in the 10-team group. Most surprisingly for a team with Messi, Paulo Dybala, Angel Di Maria and Higuain in their ranks, they scored just 19 goals in the 18 qualifying matches. Only Bolivia scored fewer.
Argentina reached the World Cup final in 2014 and the Copa America final in 2015 and 2016, but it has been downhill ever since for the twice champions. They are in the hardest group of all, Group D, alongside Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria. If they qualify they will at least be in the side of the draw that would keep them apart from Brazil, Germany and England before the final. Another advantage for Argentina is that they begin their campaign early, just three days into the tournament on June 16 against Iceland, giving the players more time to rest. (Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Ken Ferris and Clare Fallon)