What a long, strange trip it's been: Argentina since 2014
If there is one national team which has gone through more turmoil than any other during the past four years, it's most certainly Argentina. After losing the 2014 World Cup final in extra time to Germany, La Albiceleste were expected to remain a real force on the international stage.
That did not happen. Despite reaching two consecutive Copa America finals before clinching a berth in Russia with a solid 3-1 victory away at Ecuador, it has been a troublesome four-year period. What went wrong for Argentina?
The first noteworthy event was Alejandro Sabella's departure as manager. The Buenos Aires-born tactician stepped down following the 2014 World Cup. Gerardo Martino took the hot seat a month later. The former Paraguay coach reached two Copa America finals, losing both times to Chile on penalty shootouts. Apparently, though, his efforts weren't good enough. Despite placing La Albiceleste in a qualifying position for the World Cup, the pressure proved too great. 'Tata' left two summers ago.
Argentina's 2016 Copa America disappointment could have had disastrous ramifications. Lionel Messi threatened to quit the national team after suffering three straight final defeats. Sergio Romero, Lucas Biglia, Gonzalo Higuain and Kun Aguero all pondered the same. In the end, however, they all stayed on.
La Alciceleste now needed a coach, one who would knit the star-studded team together. They opted to appoint Edgardo Bauza. The former Sao Paulo boss was a respected figure among the Argentinian coaching ranks.
A problem soon became evident, though. Bauza couldn't establish any leadership within the side. Results backed that up. He won only three times in eight World Cup qualifying matches, losing three and drawing two. Even more worrisome, Argentina approached games with no clear plan. Messi was often tasked with being the creator, goalscorer and match-winner.
Unsurprisingly, then, Bauza's time ended. He lasted only 251 days. Had the qualifiers concluded at that point, La Albicelsete would have missed out on Russia.
Sampaoli was Argentina's third manager in as many years. The new gaffer wasted no time acknowledging one particular player's importance, stating this is 'Messi's team' and 'he will do his best to make the Barcelona star feel as comfortable as possible'.
Although Sampaoli's words drew much criticism, his main objective was to ensure La Albicelsete reached the World Cup. He got the job done.
Since then, however, Argentina suffered a historic 6-1 friendly defeat to Spain. Their preparations were further affected by injuries to Romero and Manuel Lanzini, ruling both players out of the World Cup.
Having been drawn in Group D alongside Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria, the Argentines must perform at peak to ensure a last 16 place.
Sampaoli is under pressure to deliver Argentina's first World Cup since 1986. Messi, as he came close to achieving four years ago, is tasked with leading his nation to glory. Will either man realise their dream in Russia?
We'll know more after Saturday's opening game against Iceland. For now, only one thing is certain: La Albiceleste's path to the World Cup was much tougher than anticipated. Time will tell whether all the suffering was worth it.