Absence makes the heart grow fonder as Argentina showed why the team is still lost without Lionel Messi despite overcoming Italy
Messi must be fit in Russia
Second-half goals from Éver Banega and Manuel Lanzini may have handed Argentina victory over Italy but they also glossed over what was another pretty mediocre performance by La Albiceleste once again.
There were certainly positives to take for Jorge Sampaoli but when Argentina struggled to convert their first-half pressure into goals and at times appear lost for ideas when around the Italian penalty area, the absence of Messi was clear.
📸 Lionel Messi watching from the stands as Argentina face Italy at the Etihad Stadium pic.twitter.com/gfySTH9UWG
— PA Dugout (@PAdugout) March 23, 2018
Higuaín is still not the answer
With Argentina’s first-choice number nine sat with Messi in the stands, Gonzalo Higuaín was given a chance to impress and stake his claim to be considered ahead of injured Sergio Agüero, absent Mauro Icardi, and surprise package Lautaro Martínez.
Aside from rolling the ball into Lanzini for Argentina’s second, it was hardly a statement of intent from Higuaín, who appeared far too immobile to play the role in Sampaoli’s new system. The one clear chance that came Pipita’s way was saved by Buffon and the competition for a place on the plane to Russia breathed a sigh of relief.
Lanzini books place in Russia
Sampaoli described Manuel Lanzini as a vital player in his pre-match press conference and while much of that was in reference to bringing the best out of Lionel Messi, even in the world’s best player’s absence, the West Ham maestro made a great claim for his place in Russia.
Lanzini’s finish past Buffon to wrap up the win was superb but the 25-year-old exhibited exactly the qualities that Sampaoli will have been looking for with some neat passes in the Italian half. The introduction of Éver Banega and the flashes of class from Giovani Lo Celso hinted that Argentina could yet be a creative force, particularly once Messi is added to the mix too.
Willy gives Romero competition
Desperately unlucky not to be included four years ago, 36-year-old Willy Caballero finally made his senior debut for Argentina and if there was still some doubt over who might be joining Sergio Romero among La Albiceleste’s goalkeeping options, Willy emphatically responded.
When Italy were well on top after half-time, Caballero produced a string of excellent saves to keep it level and if it weren’t for the goalkeeper’s intervention, Argentina may well have been dissecting a worrying defeat. Romero looks destined to remain as number one for the World Cup opener but it’s difficult to imagine Willy won’t be there.
Full-backs should see an end to back three
“Calling up Tagliafico and Bustos gives us the possibility of playing with more natural full-backs, that provide possibilities of attack down the wings,” Sampaoli told the press on Thursday.
After making that tactical switch away from his previously preferred 3-3-3-1, Argentina appeared far more balanced and Tagliafico and Bustos impressed in their new roles. The more experienced Tagliafico gave a more assured performance than 21-year-old Bustos but both will have come away with the credit, after proving the desired width and assisting defensively.
Tagliafico is without question the best option on the left but Sampaoli may still want to take a look at the more defensively sound Gabriel Mercado after Italy probed the space behind Bustos on occasion.