A week of tuning-up for Argentina turned into further fears of Messi dependency and even more doubts about the backline and Gonzalo Higuain
Jorge Sampaoli was supposed to be using this international break to finalize his plans for his World Cup but the shoots of optimism that began to sprout after the victory over Italy were completely destroyed by a record-equalling 6-1 mauling at the hands of Spain.
Argentina supporters might be struggling to find any positives after the defeat to Spain so perhaps it is understandable that the biggest winner from the international break was one of the players who missed it, Manuel Lanzini.
Jorge Sampaoli talked up the West Ham midfielder in the build-up to the Italy game and despite not being able to pair Lanzini with Lionel Messi, the River Plate product impressed at the Etihad. Some smart passing and a superbly taken goal capped off a great performance and one that likely sealed the 25-year-old’s place in Russia.
Lanzini’s knee injury saved him from the Spain spanking and you could argue that even those not included in the squad, like Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala were beneficiaries, given that no one really took their chances but there were perhaps a couple of other glimmers of hope.
Nicolás Tagliafico finally got his chance to impress at left-back and despite the rough treatment in Madrid looks the best bet moving forward. Strong in the tackle and eager to get forward and provide natural width, the Ajax defender should remain in the side.
Giovani Lo Celso showed flashes of his talent pulling strings in midfield and Maxi Meza made an impressive debut against Spain – perhaps the only player to emerge from the thrashing with any credit and so it was little surprise that Sampaoli highlighted the contributions of those three.
Willy Caballero and Fabricio Bustos appeared to have boosted their chances of being in Russia after impressing vs Italy but…
Willy Caballero and Fabricio Bustos – Willy was as good as on the plane after a string of saves against Italy but the injury to Sergio Romero in Madrid saw the 36-year-old thrown back into the action with far less success.
Spain’s six shots on goal all ended in goals (Caballero conceding five of them) and suddenly the goalkeeping position is in doubt once more. Likewise, 21-year-old Fabricio Bustos appeared momentarily the answer to Argentina’s right-back problems on Friday but his inexperience was ruthlessly exposed by Spain on Tuesday.
Taking the chance to take a look at some other options, Jorge Sampaoli gave Marcos Rojo his first Argentina appearance since March 2017 and the Manchester United defender is unlikely to be back again soon.
Slotting in alongside Nicolás Otamendi in place of Federico Fazio, Rojo looked like a player that has missed the best part of a year and Spain’s attack took full advantage.
For one player it should have been an evening for celebration as Javier Mascherano drew level with Javier Zanetti as the most capped Argentina player but it instead suggested time could be up for El Jefecito.
The 33-year-old now plying his trade in China looked overwhelmed alongside Lucas Biglia, unable to protect and unable to contribute in possession. Still, a huge presence in the squad but Argentina must prepare for a midfield beyond Mascherano.
And finally, Gonzalo Higuaín – many would have considered Pipita lucky to get the chance but it wasn’t an opportunity taken by the prolific Juventus striker.
A one-on-one chance against Italy was squandered and another sitter missed against Spain when the score was still goalless. Do the weight of three cup final failures weigh on the mind of Higuaín and if so can he be trusted in Russia?