End-of-season tours to exotic far-flung destinations are normally nothing to do with football. Instead it’s often the brain child of a suit and tie in the marketing department looking to keep the latest sponsor happy lest they withdraw their lucrative support. During this upcoming FIFA date, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) will boost their coffers by travelling to Australia to face South American rivals Brazil, and then on to Singapore to face their national team. Normally it’d be easy to ridicule this tour, chiding the respective football associations for dragging players to the other side of the world after a gruelling domestic campaign, but this one may prove significant in years to come.
This trip marks the beginning of the Jorge Sampaoli era following his appointment as Argentina’s new national coach on Thursday 1 June after protracted negotiations between the AFA and Sampaoli’s former employers, Sevilla. This trip could prove to be a great bonding experience, allowing the new staff to gel with their players away from the intrusive media glare of Buenos Aires. Furthermore, it’ll give Sampaoli a chance to put his ideas across and try them out in friendlies ahead of the final four crucial World Cup qualifiers which take place in between August and October. Argentina currently lie in fifth in the rankings table, which puts them on a November collision course with the Oceania zone winners (likely to be New Zealand). However, a solid run of results in the final four qualifiers would enable Argentina to avoid another trip to Oceania and should see them through to Russia automatically.
From Sampaoli’s original squad list so far only FC Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano and Rosario Central’s Javier Pinola have withdrawn. Mascherano suffered a terrible injury against Alaves in the last league game of the campaign and has been replaced by Federico Fazio. Paulo Dybala, and the much maligned Gonzalo Higuaín, joined up with the squad later following their exploits in the Champions League final for Juventus against Real Madrid last Saturday evening.
The first match of the tour takes place on 9 June against Brazil at the MCG in Melbourne. There is no such thing as a friendly between these two fiercely competitive rivals, and I’d expect Argentina to field the strongest side possible. Brazil are the best side on the continent at the moment, walking the World Cup qualifying group, although have left some big names at home to rest. Neymar, Dani Alves and Marcelo, to name but a few, will not be in Australia. Even coach Tite didn’t arrive with the squad until later in the week after attending the Champions League final in Cardiff last weekend. Regardless, Brazil will still be a stern test and a real baptism of fire for Argentina’s new coach.
Hopefully the second match, against Singapore, will allow Sampaoli to experiment and make the long-haul trip worthwhile for the fringe players and the exciting new talent in the squad. In goal, assuming Manchester United’s Sergio Romero starts against Brazil, it’d be nice to see Real Sociedad’s Gerónimo Rulli given a chance against the Singaporeans. I’ve long been banging the drum for Leandro Paredes of AS Roma, and it’d be great if he were to be given a full debut whilst on the tour. River Plate’s Ignacio Fernández, one of seven domestic-based players in the squad, has been superb in River’s midfield this season and has helped them become one of the most in-form sides on the continent. Further forward it’ll be interesting to keep an eye out for Mauro Icardi, Inter’s controversial captain, and Lucas Alario, River Plate’s striker who is currently in a rich vein of goal scoring form for Los Millionarios.
A far cry from the meaningless end-of-season tours, this trip to Australia and Singapore could prove vital for Argentina as the Sampaoli-era begins. Results aren’t the be-all and end-all but the coach putting his ideas across to the players and bonding with his charges are essential. A morale-boosting trip could be just what the doctor ordered as Argentina look to limp across the line and qualify for next year’s World Cup. If they get there, with Messi in the side, don’t bet against them winning it.