Much has been written about Argentina’s defeat to Germany in the World Cup Final as the last chance for a ‘Golden Generation’ to claim the ultimate prize in football. The likes of Messi, Agüero, Higuaín, Di María and Mascherano will be beyond their best in 2018 and with Argentine youth sides of more recent years failing to impress, perhaps the time has passed for La Albiceleste to claim their third World Cup. So, who could make up the squad in four years and is the future really so bleak?
Frankly, no. No, it isn’t. It is true that Argentina had the oldest average squad in Brazil and Marcos Rojo was the youngest at 24 but in Russia in 2018, several of the key players will still be more than available and so there will still be a strong, experienced core.
The five players I named earlier (except Mascherano) will be 30 or 31 and unless there is a major deterioration to their play, will still be able to offer a huge amount to Argentina.
Additionally, the failure of the recent bunch of under 20 and under 17 sides is probably more the fault of the AFA and Julio Grondona’s ill-advised scheme of appointing utterly dreadful coaches to oversee the sides. The conveyor belt of talent from Argentina is still moving and there are several young players either on the way, or in Europe, who could step up to international football and supplement this experienced spine.
Here is my run down of who might feature in Argentina’s 23-man Squad for Russia 2018….
The position of goalkeeper is an area that Argentina are now producing a number of excellent prospects and so by the time the World Cup 2018 comes round, La Albiceleste should have some great options.
One of the stand-out performers from Brazil, Sergio Romero will only be 31 and coming into his peak as a goalkeeper. Prior to this World Cup there were obvious doubts over Romero with his lack of playing time at Monaco but following his performances and the move to Benfica, Chiquito has the platform to establish himself as one of the top keepers in Europe.
Coming through behind Romero, will be Gerónimo Rulli. The 22-year-old has just completed a transfer to Real Sociedad but his hugely impressive performances for Estudiantes over the past two seasons have seen him linked to virtually every major club in Europe.
The third goalkeeper might be an experienced head, like Willy Caballero, who would be 36 when the World Cup in Russia is played or another of the young stoppers, like Esteban Andrada.
Whoever is in charge of Argentina, will have a solid pool of goalkeepers to choose from and is an area where there will certainly be improvements on the 2014 Squad.
The defense was another pleasant surprise for Argentina in Brasil but there is cause for further optimism in this department with the potential of a stronger group being available for Russia 2018.
Ezequiel Garay proved himself to be a top centre-back and completed a €15 million move to Zenit St Petersburg during the tournament. Perhaps if the deal had been delayed until after Brazil, I daresay a number of other sides would have been keen to pay Benfica this amount. Garay will still be only 31 at the next World Cup and should still be part of the spine of the side.
He should be joined once again by Marcos Rojo, who was the youngest member of Alejandro Sabella’s squad in Brazil. Rojo was previously seen as the weak-link of the defence but a fine tournament now has him heralded as one of the top left-backs in European football. A 28-year-old Marcos Rojo should be in his prime in Russia.
The remainder of the back four is likely to see some changes with Martín Demechelis going to be 37, Federico Fernández looking way out of his depth in Brazil and a 33-year-old Pablo Zabaleta likely to have slipped down the pecking order.
Alongside Garay in central defence may well be his replacement at Benfica, Lisandro López. The 24-year-old defender is a powerful competitor who provides an added goal threat from set-pieces, given his aerial strength. López was on loan at Getafe last season but has returned to Benfica for the coming season in what could be his breakthrough year for Argentina having made only 4 appearances previously.
If Zabaleta’s time has passed in four years, then Argentina’s future right back has for sometime been thought to be Catania’s, Gino Peruzzi. Peruzzi rose to prominence for Vélez Sarsfield when at 19 he shackled Neymar in the Copa Libertadores and he has since moved to Italy with Catania. Arsenal are reportedly keen on bringing Peruzzi to the Premier League and so the 22-year-old could realise his potential and hold down the right back spot for Argentina.
Provided Garay and Rojo maintain their form and López and Peruzzi continue to develop as perhaps is expected, this has the potential to be an excellent back four.
So, who might else be in contention and make up the squad? Nicolás Otamendi represented Argentina in 2010 and narrowly missed out in Brazil but is still only 26 and after completing a €12 million to Valencia in February is ready to test himself in La Liga after a loan spell in Brazil.
The other central options might be Villarreal’s, former-River Plate youngster, Mateo Musacchio, or the more experienced Federico Fazio. The Sevilla centre back has been superb in Spain and by publically criticizing Sabella sealed his own fate in terms of inclusion in the most recent squad. However, a new manager or a reconciliation could well see Fazio return to the national side. Boca Juniors’ 20-year-old defender, Lisandro Magallán is more of an outside chance but as captain of the Argentina under-20 side, Magallán has potential to make the step up.
A possible understudy to Rojo at left back is Banfield’s, Nicolás Tagliafico but with this crop of players all between the ages of 24 and 31 at the next World Cup there is no suggestion that Argentina’s squad will have diminished.
Without question the standout performer for La Albiceleste in Brazil was Javier Mascherano and although he will be 34 by the time the next World Cup arrives, it would come as no surprise if El Jefecito was still the beating heart of the Argentina side.
Joining him from the current squad it would be expected that Ángel Di María would still be involved. At 30 years old, Di María will not have seen any drop off from his trademark lung-busting performances either on the left or inside in a middle three and so he will still be a vital cog in the machine.
Enzo Pérez and Lucas Biglia proved that they are more than up to the rigours of top class international football and so in four years, both 32 they should still be available.
So, who is coming through to join the current crop of midfielders?
Well, two players perhaps unfortunate not to be involved already are Javier Pastore and Nico Gaitan. Pastore is an elegant enganche but since his big money move to Paris St Germain his career has faltered somewhat. If a proposed move to Atlético Madrid under Diego Simeone comes to fruition and he recaptures the form that he showed earlier in his career at Palermo then he would be a very likely candidate to make Russia 2018.
Gaitan did not suffer from a drop in form and in fact contributed to a superb season for Benfica but for whatever reason, Sabella overlooked the former Boca midfielder. Russia would probably be Gaitan’s last chance to play at a World Cup but his high levels of performance at club level will surely see him in with a chance.
From the younger group, River Plate offer three central midfield possibilities – Ezequiel Cirigliano, Matías Kranevitter and Emmanuel Mammana.
Cirigliano is the furthest along in terms of career progression having spent last season on loan with Hellas Verona in Serie A. A defensive midfielder playing who possesses superb ball skills and an array of passing could well develop into a top central midfielder.
Kranevitter and certainly, Mammana have it all to prove. Kranevitter is still plying his trade with River and is on the fringes of the first team although the expectation is that he will establish himself in their midfield soon, certainly since the departure of Cristian Ledesma.
In truth, Russia 2018 will probably be too soon for Emanuel Mammana but there is an intriguing symmetry to his fledgling career to that of Javier Mascherano. Mammana is yet to play for River’s first team but has already gained his first Argentina appearance when he came on as a substitute in the pre-World Cup match against Slovenia. Just like Mascherano, who did the same in 2003, he will now be expecting to break into the River side before a big money move to Europe. Certainly a wonderful conclusion to this tale, would be Mammana and Mascherano lining up together in Russia.
Elsewhere, Argentina’s other big sides have produced their own prospects. Racing Club have recently sold, Rodrigo De Paul to Valencia and Bruno Zuculini to Manchester City and both will be hoping that the move to Europe will see them make the natural progression to international football. De Paul is a versatile attacking midfielder who can operate in wider positions while Zuculini is a deeper central midfielder who likes to break forward. Depending on how their moves work out, either could play a part in Argentina’s future.
20-year-old, Leandro Paredes is another who made the move to Europe recently. Another Boca Juniors number 10, Paredes was always going to find playing time hard to come by as long as Juan Román Riquelme was at the club. With this in mind, Paredes was signed by Italian side Roma and then spent 6 months on loan with Chievo Verona. This coming season, the skillful playmaker will remain in Rome and hope to catch the attention of La Selección.
One player yet to make the move but surrounded by rumour and gossip is Vélez Sarsfield’s, Lucas Romero. At 20 years old, it would appear to be only a matter of time before the defensive midfielder joins several of his fellow Argentina under-20 graduates to Europe.
There is a rather obvious starting point when discussing Argentina’s potential attacking lineup for 2018. Where does Lionel Messi fit in? Without dwelling on the deconstruction of Messi’s performance in Brazil it is safe to assume that the best player of this generation will still be playing in four years time. What perhaps this World Cup did provide was a glimpse of what the older, less-mobile Messi will offer. Turning 31 in 2018, Messi may not still be the fleet-footed, pacey scourge of defences but what he showed in Brazil was that he is more than able to drop deeper and break forward or open defences with his passing ability. The exquisite through-ball to Ángel Di María against Switzerland showed just what Messi could offer playing in a deeper role and this may well be where he plays in Russia.
Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero underperformed in Brazil but both will only be 30 at the next World Cup and provided injury does not lead to a deterioration in their levels, both would be expected to be involved.
One of the criticisms levelled at the current squad after the omission of Carlos Tevez was the lack of goal scoring options on the bench. So, what further options do La Albiceleste have coming through?
Mauro Icardi might spend more time in the newspapers because of his lurid “private” life and the affair and subsequent marriage to Maxi Lopez’s ex-wife but there is also an unbelievably talented footballer there too.
Another Rosarino and product of La Masia, there is nothing to stop Icardi being one of the top strikers in Europe. There are not too many 21-year-old strikers who lead the line for Europe’s top sides but Icardi is already Inter Milan’s main striker. With all the attributes to dominate defences, if Icardi remains focused on football by 2018 he could be the best number 9 in European football and with a 31-year-old Messi behind him pulling the strings the results could be spectacular.
If indeed the likes of Messi and Agüero have lost a yard or two by 2018 an injection of pace will be needed. Roma’s new €25 million attacker, 21-year-old, Juan Manuel Iturbe should provide that. For a long time Iturbe has been dubbed the ‘new Messi’ and so far he has failed to live up to this lofty title. However, an impressive loan spell with Hellas Verona last season has led to the recent transfer battle between Roma and Juventus and the subsequent monster deal. Excelling on the right of a front three, Iturbe could make a name for himself in a similar role for Argentina.
Another youngster with searing pace and bags of potential is former San Lorenzo attacker, Ángel Correa who recently completed a move to join up with Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid.
There are some question marks over Correa given that his medical in Madrid discovered a heart condition which required an operation. He is currently out for 6 months following the op but is expected to make a full recovery.
If that is the case, Correa is a player full of tricks and is not only capable of scoring crucial goals but also creating them.
Also in with a shout of being in Russia, will be Monaco’s 20-year-old attacker, Lucas Ocampos and perhaps Racing Club’s, Luciano Vietto. Ocampos is quick and skillful but offers more of a physical presence than the diminutive strikers listed here, like Vietto. Vietto is set to move to Villarreal this summer and is a move that comes at a good time for the 20-year-old. Since bursting into Racing’s first team at 17 his career has stagnated and a move away from Avellaneda could do him the world of good.