Mauro Icardi’s omission was the big talking point from Jorge Sampaoli’s final 23-man squad for Argentina but among the group challenging for the World Cup are four lesser-known stars who could make the difference
Franco Armani – Goalkeeper
Sergio Romero starting in goal was just about one of the few positions in Argentina’s starting eleven that looked certain given the Manchester United’s goalkeeper’s wealth of experience. However a knee injury to Chiquito has opened up the debate and while Willy Caballero might end up getting the nod, the calls for Franco Armani grow louder by the day in Argentina.
Few were crying out for the 31-year-old when he was excelling in Colombia and leading Atlético Nacional to the Copa Libertadores but a January switch to River Plate was done so to gain exposure and it’s worked.
Colombia had wanted to poach Armani but a remarkable 13 clean sheets from 21 matches at River have many argue that the uncapped goalkeeper is in fact Argentina’s number one.
Nicolás Tagliafico – Full-back
It may have taken a January switch to Ajax to really cement his place but Nicolás Tagliafico has probably been Argentina’s best option at left-back for a lot longer. The 25-year-old will start in Russia after impressing Jorge Sampaoli in recent friendlies and while many might not be familiar with the tireless defender, Tagliafico is there on credit.
Something of prodigious talent but after a few years of treading water, Tagliafico established himself as one of the finest players in Argentina after a transfer to Independiente in 2015.
Captain under Ariel Holan, Tagliafico led Independiente to the Copa Sudamericana last year, and his performances either bombing down the left or slotting into central defence will not have gone unnoticed by Sampaoli.
Maxi Meza – Midfielder
Tagliafico’s former teammate at Independiente, Maxi Meza remains in Avellaneda for now but El Rojo will be bracing themselves for bids this summer. The midfielder’s consistent displays have been central to Independiente’s success over the past year and the club is hoping to boost his release clause from $12 million to $30 million as soon as possible.
A creative dynamo, who can play on either wing or in the number ten role, Meza has been dazzling the locals at the Estadio Libertadores de América since joining from Gimnasia. A solitary bright spot in the thrashing by Spain probably earned Meza his spot on the plane and he could yet form a surprise part of the Albiceleste midfield.
Cristian Pavón – Striker
“I found myself a new partner in Pavón. He is a great player. A different kind of player.” Whether Lionel Messi’s high praise for Cristian Pavón is enough for the Boca youngster to nick Angel Di María’s spot on the left of the Argentina attack remains to be seen but the 22-year-old is a genuine alternative.
And one that many think should command a starting role after his dazzling displays for Boca and the signs of potential alongside Messi and Sergio Agüero. Lightning quick, an eye for an assist, and a goal threat cutting in off the left, there’s a reason European clubs are already lining up.
Pavón’s $36 million release clause might look cheap in a few weeks and with Barcelona spying on a more permanent relationship with Messi, Boca are hoping to boost that to $50 million.