The topic of Ezequiel Lavezzi continues to be a hot one in Argentina with the controversial call-up of a footballer who is barely kicking a ball
While the vast majority of Argentina’s number one FIFA-ranked squad are battling for honors at the critical point of the European football calendar, one member of Edgardo Bauza’s group is already training alone at the complex just outside Buenos Aires ahead of the World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Bolivia.
Ezequiel Lavezzi has barely kicked a competitive football in nine months and yet remains part of the core of Argentina’s squad – a decision, in light of other high-profile omissions, for which Bauza finds himself questioned.
When the 31-year-old rejected the overtures of Manchester United, Chelsea and Inter Milan, to sign for Hebei China Fortune in February 2016, it was assumed that Lavezzi’s Argentina career had come to an end. Pocho admitted as much himself when explaining that the Chinese project had attracted him, ‘as well as the financial aspect,’ but Gerardo Martino and more recently Edgardo Bauza have held a different opinion.
Not officially released, Lavezzi reportedly signed a two-year deal worth £23.5 million after tax and the former Paris Saint-Germain forward has been able to pocket the vast sum and avoid losing his international status.
His Chinese employers heralded Lavezzi as ‘the next Maradona’ upon his arrival but have seen little on the pitch to justify the ludicrously hyperbolic claim.
Lavezzi’s start in Hebei’s league match against Henan Jianye a couple of weeks ago was his first since May but the following weekend manager Manuel Pellegrini didn’t even select the Argentinian in his matchday squad. Chinese Super League rules dictate only three foreign players allowed and Lavezzi missed out to Brazilian pair Aloisio and Hernanes and South Korean defender Kim Ju-young.
No longer deemed good enough for a club that finished seventh in China last season but still one of the best options available to Bauza for Argentina?
Martino’s decision to select Lavezzi for the Copa America Centenario was vindicated and only a fractured elbow prevented Pocho from playing a further role but since then it has become harder and harder to make an argument.
Only injury ruled Lavezzi out of Bauza’s first squad but since then Pocho has been included and his selection defended: “Lavezzi is a very important player in the group for everything that he contributes,” Bauza explained.
“He [Lavezzi] is one of the leaders in the group and helps with the harmony.”
This much seems undeniably true and when the press ran a story that Lavezzi had allegedly been caught smoking marijuana during the previous qualifiers it prompted Lionel Messi to lead a show of support and boycott the media.
The importance of squad unity particularly when travelling for major tournaments cannot be understated and Lavezzi’s role as joker within Alejandro Sabella’s group was clear. From squirting pachorra with his water bottle to the joking in training, if there were any moments of light relief during the high-pressure situation, Lavezzi was at the centre.
The difference was that three years ago in Brazil, Lavezzi was still playing for Paris Saint-Germain following his €26.5 million move from Palermo in 2012, and had played a central role in Sabella’s Argentina sweeping to World Cup qualification.
On the left of the attack, Lavezzi provided something of a goal threat, the tactical nous to stretch the defence and break the lines, and importantly the discipline to track back and assist the midfield. Bauza still believes the 31-year-old can perform this role but has also stressed that the Hebei forward, “is used to wearing the national team shirt and that is a very important value.”
After such inactivity it is far from clear if Lavezzi can still do this or at least if he remains the best option available. What is clear is that the squad is not being selected on the basis of form and with Argentina underperforming in the current World Cup qualification process, it is why many of Bauza’s detractors are frustrated.
Lavezzi has been close with Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero since the group won Olympic gold together in Beijing in 2008 and his continued selection plays into the narrative that this clique have a controlling say over who is in and who is out of Bauza’s squad.
The under-fire Argentine coach has said that journalists ‘break his balls’ over the subject of Mauro Icardi but the in-form youngster is just one example of the next generation unable to break into the squad at this point. A harmonious squad is vital but if results and performances do not improve, Bauza can expect plenty more heat over his selections.