“When I start something, it is to finish it.” Those were the words of Argentina’s iconic midfield general, Javier Mashcherano on the eve of another World Cup qualification campaign. There is no one more desperate for success than El Jefecito after suffering final defeats in three Copa Américas and most notably in 2014 at the World Cup in Brazil and while Russia 2018 is still a distant destination, the visit of Ecuador to the Estadio Monumental this evening is the first step on the gruelling journey.
The absence of Lionel Messi through injury will give Mascherano the opportunity to lead out La Albiceleste once more and while Messi’s talents will be missed, there is no doubt that Argentina still have their leader. Since making his debut in 2003, Mascherano has made 117 appearances, making him the second most capped player in the history of the national side, and this evening will be his fourth qualifying process.
Speaking to reporters, Mascherano explained: “I’m now alittleolder,withmoreexperience,butwiththe sameenthusiasm.WhenI startsomething, it istofinishit. Theendofthequalifiersis theWorld CupandI will fightas I havemywholecareertogetaplace.”
There is no doubting this and even after the emergence of Mascherano’s apparent heir, River Plate’s Matías Kranevitter in the previous friendlies, the 31-year-old remains a central part of Gerardo Martino’s side. The Barcelona player will line-up alongside Lucas Biglia for the clash with Ecuador, where Argentina will be looking for a positive start to qualification. There is no tougher process in world football to reach the World Cup and Mascherano reminded reporters of this point.
Certainly Gerardo Martino will be aware of this and being robbed of captain Lionel Messi is less than ideal. Add to that, injuries to Enzo Pérez, Éver Banega, Marcos Rojo and Roberto Pereyra mean that Martino may have had to make even more changes to his preferred line-up. However, despite this news, the eleven selected to face Ecuador has a familiar look to it with only full-backs, Facundo Roncaglia and Emmanuel Más and youngster Ángel Correa being relatively inexperienced faces.
Another player who missed a couple of training sessions in Ezeiza this week was Manchester City striker, Sergio Agüero but after completing the session on Wednesday was confirmed as the number 10 in Messi’s absence. Agüero is in a rich vein of form at club level and will be shouldering much of the goal scoring burden on Thursday night with Ángel Di María and Ángel Correa either side of him and Javier Pastore in his favoured enganche role just behind. On paper, it is an attack with a decent balance to it and one which should have too much for Ecuador even without Messi. Agüero was honoured to be taking his old friend’s number 10 shirt but was quick to play down any similarites – “To take the 10 of Messi is something unique. There is no one like him.”
That is obviously true but Agüero has the experience and talent to spearhead the attack. With Messi missing out, there was much debate over the forward line and as always Carlos Tevez was at the centre of this. The Boca Juniors striker is set for a place on the bench once again, and other than from the most ardent Boca supporters there can be little argument with this. Gerardo Martino admitted that “Carlos will always be a matter of debate” but on this occasion there is no comparison between the records of Agüero and Tevez at international level. If there is room for only one central striker than it has to Kun from the current squad. The other usual option, Gonzalo Higuaín was not called up for these fixtures but supporters will be hoping to see his replacement, Paulo Dybala at some point.
The sides are expected to line-up….
Argentina starting XI: Sergio Romero; Facundo Roncaglia, Ezequiel Garay, Nicolás Otamendi, Emmanuel Más; Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano (C). Javier Pastore; Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Correa
Ecuador starting XI: Alexander Domínguez; Juan Carlos Paredes, Frickson Erazo, Gabriel Achilier, Walter Ayoví; Segundo Castillo, Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa, Jefferson Montero; Miler Bolaños, Felipe Caicedo
The one area of potential concern for Argentina will be out-wide with Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero looking to exploit the inexperience of Roncaglia and Más. Martino will need to ensure that the midfield provides sufficient support to nullify this point of attack for the visitors, that has caused many sides problems over the past few years.
The last time the two sides met was a friendly in New Jersey in March which ended 2-1 to Argentina and La Albiceleste certainly have the advantage in a head-to-head. During qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Argentina eased to a 4-0 win when they met in the Monumental while drawing 1-1 in Quito. Argentina topped CONMEBOL qualifying in impressive fashion last time but got off to something of a slow start with defeat to Venezuela and a draw with Bolivia in the opening three fixtures. Ecuador will be hoping for a similarly sluggish start to qualification this time round.
Argentina last 5 fixtures
Argentina 2 – 2 México (8/9/2015)
Argentina 7 – 0 Bolivia (4/9/2015)
Argentina 0 – 0 Chile (4/7/2015)
Argentina 6 – 1 Paraguay (30/6/2015)
Argentina 0 – 0 Colombia (26/6/2015)