Envisaging a World Cup without La Albiceleste is like imagining the Argentine diet without red wine and beef. Yet a bad result in this, penultimate, round of qualifiers could make that nightmare a distinct reality, and put into the perspective the “failure” of three final defeats in as many years.
As things stand Argentina are in fifth position in the competitive CONMEBOL qualifying section. Finishing here would mean a potential trip to New Zealand for an intercontinental playoff, with the All Whites clear favourites to win the Oceania section now that Australia are, administratively speaking, an Asian nation. Whilst Argentina would be expected to prevail in a two-legged tie with New Zealand, it’s clearly a trip best avoided given the draining travelling involved, especially with the majority of their star players based in Europe. The last time Argentina faced such a tie was in late 1993, when they overcame Australia 2-1 over two legs to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.
Things aren’t all gloomy for Argentina, who are only two points off second place. However, looking back over their shoulders there are three teams within four points. When things reached a low point earlier this year Edgardo Bauza, now manager of the U.A.E national team, was dispensed of by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) due to an uninspiring record of three wins in eight games. His replacement, the popular Marcelo Bielsa disciple Jorge Sampaoli, started his reign with a friendly trip to Singapore and Australia, with victories over the Singaporean national team and Brazil in Sydney.
Tougher tests than Singapore await for Sampaoli’s charges, with Uruguay and Venezuela lying in wait during this round of qualifiers. The first of the double headers takes place on Thursday evening, as Argentina make the short trip across the estuary to face Uruguay in the River Plate Derby. Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, scene of the first World Cup final in 1930, will be the setting for the clash where far more than local pride is at stake. Uruguay are one point ahead of their rivals and a victory for them would put them almost out of arms reach with only three games remaining. For Argentina, a good result in the Uruguayan capital would set them up nicely for the home clash with bottom-of-the-table Venezuela, due to take place in the Estadio Monumental on Tuesday 5 September.
Sampaoli’s squad selection thus far has proved refreshing, with several promising and previously overlooked players, including ones from the domestic league, included. The new manager has also racked up the air miles in recent months, travelling to meet dozens of Argentine players to outline his philosophy and tactics in an attempt to convert a team of underachievers into possible world champions.
There is continuity between the sticks, with three regular goalkeepers selected. Javier Mascherano will play in defence under Sampaoli, where he plays for club side FC Barcelona, despite winning all of his international caps in midfield. Along with Otamendi and Mercado, the relatively inexperienced quartet of Fazio, Pareja, Bustos and Pinola make up the back line.
In midfield Javier Pastore, looking to make his first international appearance since late 2015, returns. Leandro Paredes is back in the squad after his impressive start to life at Zenit St. Petersburg’s Argentine colony, fresh from his goal in his international debut against Singapore. He’ll be joined by new team mate Emiliano Rigoni, formerly of Belgrano and Independiente, earning his first call up for La Albiceleste.
The much-maligned Gonzalo Higuain, ridiculed for missing a series of guilt-edged chances in big games, has been left out of Sampaoli’s first competitive squad although Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero earns a recall. Serie A duo Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, from Juventus and Internazionale respectively, are in the squad and are set to start the Uruguay clash in a front three alongside captain Lionel Messi.
Messi’s FC Barcelona team mate Luis Suarez was set to miss the fixture against Argentina, but has boosted Uruguay by joining up with the squad. It remains to be seen just how fit he is after suffering a knee injury two weeks ago in the Spanish Super Cup, although rumours abound that he will partner Edinson Cavani in attack. West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini was not so lucky and has withdrawn from Argentina’s squad after picking up a knock in the weekend clash with Newcastle.
Historically, Argentina have dominated the fixture against Uruguay, winning 87 compared to 57 for their rivals. However, it has been closer recently with Uruguay winning three of the last eight competitive encounters between the two nations.
Although qualifying for a World Cup is purely based on merit, with the sides who reach the tournament deserving of a place there, the football world’s showpiece event would be poorer without the sky blue and white stripes of Argentina. It may also feasibly be Lionel Messi’s last crack at a World Cup, and it would be a crying shame if the world’s best player was denied the chance to strut his stuff on the biggest stage of all.
The full squad:
Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Nahuel Guzmán (Tigres), Geronimo Rulli (Real Sociedad).
Defenders: Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Federico Fazio (Roma), Nicolas Pareja (Sevilla), Javier Pinola (River Plate), Fabricio Bustos (Independiente).
Midfielders: Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Ever Banega (Sevilla), Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Javier Pastore (Paris Saint-Germain), Augusto Fernández (Atletico Madrid), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Marcos Acuña (Sporting), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Leandro Paredes (Zenit St Petersburg), Guido Pizarro (Sevilla), Emiliano Rigoni (Zenit St Petersburg).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Joaquin Correa (Sevilla), Mauro Icardi (Internazionale), Lautaro Acosta (Lanús), Dario Benedetto (Boca Juniors).