The easy part for Argentina was qualifying for the World Cup, the hard part will be getting a starting XI that can make some World Cup waves
Hangovers still likely grip Lima but after Peru saw off New Zealand, the line-up for the 2018 World Cup was complete. Thoughts now turn immediately to next June and for all 32 nations, the preparation begins. For some, the starting eleven, the shape and the tactics are already almost set in stone but while Argentina slumped to a friendly defeat to Nigeria in Krasnodar, it was painfully clear that Jorge Sampaoli has a great deal to work out.
The four World Cup qualifiers that Sampaoli oversaw were all simply about results and in that sense it was mission accomplished…just. And despite the intense pressure of that situation, the new coach had begun trying to implement his own ideas.
With varying success, there have been signs of improvement but the struggle for goals, the over-reliance on Lionel Messi, the somewhat muddled midfield and the suspect defence are all still evident.
Messi’s hat-trick in Quito and the enormous sense of relief that followed understandably overshadowed any of these concerns and for the optimist among supporters, this week’s trip to Russia was supposed to witness the start of Sampaoli’s new Albiceleste, unburdened by the weight of qualifying expectation.
Results weren’t of any real importance, there were positives to take and the players got useful minutes under their belts but key questions remain with only a friendly double-header in March left before the end of the season.
Sergio Agüero provided one of the main pluses, scoring the only goal in the win over Russia in Moscow and netting again against Nigeria before departing at halftime due to a bout of dizziness. The Super Eagles coming back to win 4-2 takes nothing away from a bright couple of performances from the Manchester City striker and a suggestion that Sampaoli may have his first-choice number nine.
Lionel Messi didn’t have one of his best games but linked well with his old friend, Agüero and there were signs of promise. While the pair are certain to be on the plane in June (if fit) the rest of the attack remains up in the air with Ángel Di María as frustrating as ever, Paulo Dybala undertaking the tough task of playing understudy to Messi and the likes of Papu Gómez, Diego Perotti, Giovani Lo Celso and Eduardo Salvio fighting for moments to impress.
If Pep Guardiola’s influence at Manchester City has helped produce an improved, more compatible version of Agüero, the Spanish coach can also take at least some credit for Nicolás Otamendi’s progression. From his place in the side being widely questioned, the former Vélez defender is now viewed as a vital piece of defence.
However, the likes of Messi, Agüero, Otamendi, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Romero aside, there are a whole lot of maybes when assessing a possible Argentina World Cup squad.
Few really staked a claim this week and will be relying on their club form and those March friendlies to ensure a spot but Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was one who could crash the party.
The 21-year-old made his debut against Russia immediately displaying the pace and directness that have made Boca such a formidable side. Two assists for Agüero over the two matches, displaying a sort of awareness that Di María is often criticised for, will certainly have pushed Pavón further forward into Sampaoli’s plans but competition remains fierce.
And it is this uncertainty all over the pitch that leaves Sampaoli with so many decisions.
Agüero may now be in pole to start as number nine but Mauro Icardi’s injury problems have perhaps opened the door for Gonzalo Higuaín once more; the frustrating Di María still remains central to plans despite increasing options in wide areas; a widely criticised Lucas Biglia still likely to start in holding midfield; debate surrounding the ideal defensive unit and Agustín Marchesín badly failing in his audition to play back-up to Sergio Romero.
Sampaoli appears intent on keeping his three-man defence but that too raises eyebrows. Pressing high from the front leaves Argentina’s sluggish last line exposed and without switching to a back four, the solution isn’t entirely clear.
Talks of Italy and Morocco for March’s friendlies will provide almost a last audition for many but Sampaoli must also solidify his plans. Argentina remain among the favourites at the bookmakers but La Albiceleste have plenty to think about before June.