Jorge Sampaoli does not just have tough decisions to make up front, but has a plethora of options at the back including a key performer that moved to China
After an extensive tour of Europe and watching various Superliga fixtures, Jorge Sampaoli is presumably finalizing his plans ahead of the World Cup. The friendlies next month will be a huge indicator of who is in and who is out, and after previously addressing the goalkeeping situation, these are Argentina’s defensive options…
The unmovable object
It may have been unthinkable a year or so ago but Nicolas Otamendi is the one player who will be in Sampaoli’s side without question. Once regarded as a rash, lumbering, error-prone defender, the 30-year-old has established himself as the cornerstone of Manchester City and Argentina’s defence.
Since being hung out to dry by Diego Maradona in South Africa in 2010, when Germany capatalised on the youngster being out of position, Otamendi has rebuilt his international career and after being overlooked by Alejandro Sabella in 2014, Russia will be a chance to put things right.
— Nicolas Otamendi (@Notamendi30) February 9, 2018
The role of El Jefecito
Despite making the lucrative switch to China, another player certain to be in Russia will be Javier Mascherano as the 33-year-old calls time on his international career and aims to get his hands on the trophy that eluded him four-years-ago.
The experience and leadership that Mascherano brings to the group is invaluable but while four-years-ago his place at the base of the midfield was without question, Jefecito’s position in Sampaoli’s eleven is far less clear.
Sampaoli was the first Argentina manager to make the logical step and consider Mascherano a central defender given the dearth of options in this position and the player’s familiarity with the role at Barcelona. Will Mascherano continue there with Hebei China Fortune and will that impact his starting place?
Últimas dos semanas de pretemporada. La Liga comienza pronto ?⚽️ / Two weeks to go. Chinese League starts soon ?⚽️ pic.twitter.com/XPXqqH0Rdr
— Javier Mascherano (@Mascherano) February 18, 2018
The one that got away
Almost certainly one of Argentina’s best central defenders will not be in Russia as Ezequiel Garay appears to have prematurely hung up his national team boots. A key figure four years ago en route to the final, the 31-year-old has proved his worth once again this year at Valencia but when any call has come, the former Newell’s defender has declined.
On the plane
So who will be there? Gabriel Mercado has been a favourite under Sampaoli and offers the flexibility to play centrally or at right-back while Federico Fazio came in towards the end of qualification and was a more than able option to start despite his lack of pace.
Marcos Acuña is perhaps not as well-known as many in Argentina’s star-studded squad but slotted in well when asked to play a far more defensive role on the left hand side. El Huevo’s versatility to play at left-back or as a wing-back or in his more natural advanced role makes his a useful addition.
Two figures who will be favourites to be included but will have to prove their fitness before the end of the season will be Marcos Rojo and Ramiro Funes Mori. Both were key members of the side prior to Sampaoli’s appointment but major injury has ruled them out under his tenure so far. Their ability on the ball will be desirable to Sampaoli and regardless of formation, both could feature.
Battling away for the remaining spots
Among a host of names that Jorge Sampaoli has been actively keeping tabs on and used in previous squad there are a couple that will perhaps miss out due to either loss of form or injury, like River Plate’s Javier Pinola and Sevilla’s Nicolás Pareja and so the remaining central defensive spots available are likely to be battled out between Germán Pezzella and Emanuel Mammana.
And while Sampaoli hasn’t really utilized traditional full-backs, the likes of Nicolás Tagliafico, Cristian Ansaldi, Emiliano Insua and Juan Sánchez Miño are all vying for a chance on the left; Fabricio Bustos, Leonardo Jara, Ezequiel Schelotto and a possible return for Pablo Zabaleta are options on the right.
Former Independiente teammates Tagliafico and Bustos appear to most likely from that list but next month could be critical.