Lionel Messi and 22 others is the initial thought from Argentina’s World Cup squad for 2018, which is lacking one of Europe’s top sharp-shooters
Jorge Sampaoli has named his final 23-man squad hoping to go one better in Russia than those in Brazil four years ago. 14 of those included have never played at a World Cup before and while there is obviously a great deal of quality among the group, the jury is still out.
The big casualty & the number nine gamble
The 35-man shortlist brought with it no real drama but the inclusion of Mauro Icardi was always likely to be the headline when Sampaoli cut that to 23. And so it proved, as predictably the Inter captain was left out with Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín taking the spots.
Few could argue that either Agüero or Higuaín is anything other than elite center-forwards but with one still recovering from knee surgery and the other, trying to shake off the demons of past misses, the lack of another option is a risk.
Is Icardi a victim of the supposed Messi Friends club? Has his personal life cost him? Or did Sampaoli really just assess things from a tactical standpoint? We’ll likely never know but if Russia is a disaster, expect to hear more people crying out for Icardi.
A defensive midfield shortage
There is a lot riding on Lucas Biglia returning to full fitness after Sampaoli left little in the way of alternatives for that defensive midfield role.
Guido Pizarro, Rodrigo Battaglia, Matías Kranevitter, or even Fernando Gago could all have been considered but Argentina have opted to put their strength in other areas and relied on Biglia and Javier Mascherano to fill that role.
Mascherano looked a shadow of the player that led Argentina so bravely in 2014 when he started in the Spain thrashing and should anything happen to Biglia, La Albiceleste look short.
Flexibility at full-back
That shortage is perhaps made to look all the more severe considering the options available at full-back.
Gabriel Mercado is also coming back from injury but he has Eduardo Salvio as an attacking alternative at right-back; Nicolás Tagliafico is Argentina’s best left-back but he too has a naturally more attacking deputy in Marcos Acuña (Not to mention Marcos Rojo’s ability to play there).
So the addition of Cristian Ansaldi due to the fact that “he is a full-back that can play on either side,” looks to have left Argentina well stocked in that department and lacking in others.
A debutant goalkeeper
Sergio Romero remains the likely number one, having racked up a record amount of goalkeeping appearances for Argentina and never really letting the side down. For all his obvious lack of club football, Chiquito has proved a safe pair of hands under numerous coaches.
There is nothing to suggest that won’t be the case despite Sampaoli clearly preferring a keeper that is comfortable with the ball at his feet. However, the emergence of Franco Armani provides strong competition.
The River Plate goalkeeper has been one of the best in South America for a couple of years. A January move to the Monumental got the desired exposure and 12 clean sheets in 20 appearances have landed the 31-year-old on the plane. Now could he nick Romero’s spot?
What’s Sampaoli’s formation?
For all the talk of individuals, who should be there and who shouldn’t, Argentina don’t yet have a clear system or anything close to a starting eleven. Lionel Messi, Nicolás Otamendi and Lucas Biglia (if fit) are guaranteed starters but beyond that?
Sampaoli needs to resolve this fast after already trying out his preferred 3-man defence only to switch to a back-four during his short tenure.
The options for both are there in the squad and Sampaoli has hinted that he could even go for an offensive 2-3-3-2 but against good opposition, Argentina supporters may need to watch that with their hands over their eyes.