Despite Argentina struggling for goals, Gonzalo Higuain continues to be left out of Jorge Sampaoli’s plans as Argentina face last chance to reach Russia
Speculation surrounding Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina squad for the final round of World Cup qualification had been rife since the two disappointing draws with Uruguay and Venezuela but the headstrong coach has made few changes for the decisive double-header with Peru and Ecuador.
Every pundit, every former player and every supporter had an opinion on Sampaoli’s squad and while many thought the best route forward was to scrap the experimenting and name a more familiar looking squad, the 57-year-old has stuck to his guns with more or less the same group that failed to edge Argentina any closer to qualification this month.
In an effort to improve home results, Argentina will host Peru at Boca Juniors’ iconic Bombonera rather than El Monumental and while the intense, claustrophobic and raucous stadium will create an all-together different atmosphere, Sampaoli will be playing with almost the same hand.
Geronimo Rulli can consider himself very unlucky to lose his place as third-choice keeper to Agustin Marchesin while Atalanta’s impressive captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez reclaims a spot in the squad, providing a useful option in attack off the left flank.
However, the only real change comes in defence, where Sampaoli gives himself a couple of new alternatives in Zenit St Petersburg youngster Emanuel Mammana and recent Fiorentina signing German Pezzella.
World Cup finalist Ezequiel Garay had been tipped for a return but is rumoured to be in self-imposed exile and despite Sampaoli reaching out to him will remain unavailable.
Argentina were perhaps a little light in defence for the last matches and while Mammana in particular is the ball-playing type of defender that Sampaoli likes, he nor Pezzella provide a natural full-back option. Now the Argentinian-based players are yet to be added and the likes of Fabricio Bustos or Nicolas Tagliafico could be added but looking at the balance of the squad, Argentina still look wedded to the idea of a back three.
Which poses the biggest question of how Sampaoli gets more creativity from his midfield and the one that every coach wrestles with – unlocking Lionel Messi’s full potential.
The fact that Papu Gomez is the only new addition from Europe means Gonzalo Higuain is the biggest loser out of this latest squad.
Argentina’s new number nine Mauro Icardi failed to find the net in two opportunites, Sergio Aguero didn’t even get a minute of action and Boca’s Dario Benedetto struggled in his cameo. However, Icardi and Aguero remain and Benedetto appears a certainty once the domestic players are added.
Sampaoli has assured Higuain that the door isn’t closed but the outlook isn’t good if Icardi remains first choice, Aguero continues scoring in Pep Guardiola’s stylistically-similar City side and Benedetto remains on fire in Boca colours.
So if indeed there is a back three, one of those mentioned is the side’s number nine and Lionel Messi takes his free role off the right, the puzzle for Sampaoli is in the heart of the starting eleven.
This midfield conundrum is one that Edgardo Bauza never managed to solve and arguably the last man to do so was Alejandro Sabella.
It is perhaps with this in mind that Boca Juniors’ Fernando Gago could be poised for a recall. The injury-prone 31-year-old was instrumental in releasing Messi during the build-up to the 2014 World Cup and has been outstanding back in Argentina. Gago is certainly not the long-term solution craved for but given his familiarity could be an effective stop-gap.
His place is not yet certain and so looking at the options named from Europe, how could Sampaoli mix things up? Guido Pizzarro’s injury enforces one change but presumably Lucas Biglia takes the role of defensive number five and despite an underwhelming display against Venezuela, Sampaoli favourite Éver Banega is still likely to have a role.
That could of course come in a more advanced role given Paulo Dybala’s admission that ‘playing with Messi is a little difficult.’ The jewel in Juve’s crown clearly struggled alongside Messi, wanting to operate in much the same position, and his place in the starting role is perhaps under threat.
If Banega or another does fill this creative midfield role, then Gago or Leandro Paredes seem set to partner Biglia as the more dynamic distributor from deep.
Which leaves the important wide roles on either flank – given the lack of full backs whoever is selected will be required to provide width offensively but also act as an auxiliary defender, protecting the wings when Argentina are without the ball.
Angel Di Maria remains the obvious pick on the left and brings an energy that few can match but Marcos Acuna proved a capable back-up and Papu Gomez may now be a further option. While on the right, Eduardo Salvio returns from the injury that ruled him out this month to rival Zenit’s Emiliano Rigoni or presumably from Argentina’s Superliga Lanus’ Lautaro Acosta or Independiente’s impressive youngster Fabricio Bustos (the latter would be a bold choice in a game of such importance).
Sampaoli and his assistant Sebastian Beccacece’s meticulous preparation of opponents Peru and Ecuador will already be well underway. Both will travel to Europe to speak with the players and this time the vision must be understood. Whoever is chosen, whatever system is used, there is simply no more room for mistakes.