Anything less than a win in Uruguay could see Argentina missing out on the World Cup in Russia. So no pressure then for new coach, Jorge Sampaoli
On Thursday evening in Montevideo, South America’s oldest foes lock horns once again and while Uruguay and Argentina’s historic rivalry gives added significance to every meeting, the latest installment raises the stakes even further as World Cup qualification is on the line.
Only four rounds remain in the marathon that is South American qualifying and while Uruguay currently occupy third with Argentina sitting outside the automatic qualifying places in need of a playoff in fifth, only four points separate Colombia in second and Ecuador in sixth.
Three points for either side would edge them closer to a place in Russia; defeat would make things rather uncomfortable with only three games remaining.
“It’s a decisive match. A bad result against Uruguay will force us to take (all) nine points,” Jorge Sampaoli warned in his press conference on Tuesday.
Sampaoli’s appointment as Argentina coach has given La Albiceleste a lift at a point when the squad and playing style had stagnated under the dour Edgardo Bauza while South America’s early pacesetters Uruguay have kept faith in Oscar Tabarez and his small, experienced group, losing their last three World Cup qualifiers, conceding nine goals in the process before shipping a further six in June’s two friendlies.
With concerns over his defence and aging central midfield, Tabarez won’t be looking forward to facing Sampaoli’s new look Argentina attack of Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi.
The trio scored seven goals between them for their respective clubs at the weekend and although Sampaoli will have just a couple of training sessions with the three before Thursday evening, the potential is staggering. Argentina have mustered only 15 goals in 14 rounds of qualifiers and it is a disappointing statistic that an attacking new coach is eager to rectify.
[SELECCIÓN MAYOR] Estas son algunas postales 📸 de lo que dejó la actividad del día martes para los jugadores argentinos. pic.twitter.com/O7gGppfC2o
— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) August 29, 2017
“We’re facing a reality in which we are left outside of Russia and, with little time left, we have to take advantage of every virtue in this squad,” Sampaoli explained.
Such firepower is indeed Argentina’s virtue and Sampaoli’s bold 3-4-3 variant will look to play to its evident strengths and stretch Uruguay.
The controversial Mauro Icardi looks to get his long overdue starting role, in place of Gonzalo Higuain with Sampaoli explaining, “we need a striker who, as well as goals, has the characteristics of an assist-maker,” and while Paulo Dybala has been present in the squad for a while now, lacks time on the pitch alongside Lionel Messi.
45 minutes in the home fixture against Uruguay is all the pair managed before Dybala was sent off and although Sampaoli had a closer look during the friendly against Brazil, Thursday’s match is whole other test.
The tactical shift to a three-man defence also raises questions and may even see the ever-present Javier Mascherano lose his place in the Argentina side. El Jefecito has been the figurehead of the national team under all previous managers but Sampaoli made it immediately clear that the 33-year-old would now be considered as a central defender, where he plays his club football, and as such his automatic starting slot looks under threat.
Aware of Uruguay’s aerial threat, Sampaoli has intimated that he may opt for Federico Fazio, alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Gabriel Mercado and with few genuine full-back options in the squad, as exciting as Argentina look going forward, La Celeste will optimistically be looking at that defence and thinking there will be opportunities.
Who will be available to take advantage remains something of a mystery though as the previously ruled out Luis Suarez has flown back to Montevideo and could miraculously shake off his knee injury to play some part.
Argentina will be hoping that isn’t the case as a Cavani-Suarez partnership looks a great deal more formidable than the Cavani-Christian Stuani pairing that will likely start should the Barcelona star not make it.
However, Sampaoli has been preparing for this game for months and his meticulous planning and meetings with each member of his squad has left no stone unturned. The friendlies against Brazil and Singapore gave the Copa America winning coach a chance to try a few things and assess players but having never won on his competitive debut as a coach, Sampaoli will now be aiming to buck that unwanted trend.
The derby between Argentina and Uruguay should need no extra selling points but with what is at stake, La Albiceleste kicking off a new era under Jorge Sampaoli and Luis Suarez rushing back to the aid of Uruguay, Thursday evening has all the ingredients for a classic.