2016 is an important year for La Albiceleste as Gerardo Martino and Argentina look to put behind them the disappointment of consecutive final defeats. The Copa América Centenario provides an immediate opportunity to avenge that defeat to Chile last July but the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro offers the next generation of national team players to capture gold, just as Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero did in 2008. Selecting squads for these tournaments could prove difficult with the Copa América in the United States taking priority but Martino needing to select three over-aged players to compliment his under-23 squad in Rio. Having already discounted taking Messi to guide the youngsters, rumours are abound that the three will be Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori, Villarreal centre back Mateo Musacchio and Real Sociedad goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli. Would these be wise choices for Martino and who else might make up the Olympic squad of only 18 dreaming of gold?
In 2008, Argentina’s supremely talented young crop of players were assisted by Juan Román Riquelme, Javier Mascherano and Nicolás Pareja and the result was a gold medal which served as a baptism for the current squad and the relative success that they have achieved. Pareja was on the cusp of the senior squad after recently completing a move to Anderlecht from Argentinos Juniors, while Riquelme and Mascherano were already experienced internationals. These three filled vital positions in the side and as they expected, complimented and led the younger, inexperienced players through an international tournament.
The problem facing Gerardo Martino is that this summer (unlike in 2008), Argentina also compete in the Copa América and so his options for over-aged players are reduced. Despite the skepticism surrounding CONMEBOL’s motivation and the invited teams, this Copa is the priority and this was all but confirmed when Martino told reporters:
“Messi won’t go to the Olympic Games because there is a lot of competition for the national team this year. We have the Copa América, the Olympic Games and after that four rounds of World Cup qualifiers.”
With this in mind, despite a lack of any confirmation, there are reports that Martino will take Ramiro Funes Mori, Mateo Musacchio and Gerónimo Rulli to Rio with an additional 15 under-23 players to make up the required squad of 18.
Notably these selections would appear to address Argentina’s problem area – the defence. When looking at the list of available under-23s there is a gulf in class between those available tasked with putting the ball in the net and those whose job it is to keep it out. That is not to say that there are no good young Argentine defenders but that they certainly don’t have the same experience and would benefit more from reinforcements.
Many have clamoured for the inclusion of Rulli at senior level for quite some time now but with his path seemingly blocked by Sergio Romero still, it would be useful for the 23-year-old (8 months older than the Olympic cut-off) to gain some international experience. Certainly being first choice in Rio would be more beneficial than a place on the bench in the USA, or nothing at all. The other goalkeeping slot in the 18-man squad would presumably go to River Plate’s Augusto Batalla, given that he has been a central part of the under-20 team but Newell’s Old Boys, Ezequiel Unsain and Quilmes’ Walter Benítez are clocking up invaluable experience in the Primera and could be decent shouts. Either way, the logic behind taking the far more developed Rulli in this case seems sound.
Likewise, Mateo Musacchio is a valid choice as the 25-year-old was on the brink of forcing his way into Martino’s senior squad when he suffered a horrific broken leg playing for Villarreal and missed a huge part of 2015. The former River defender is fit again and impressing in La Liga making him an ideal candidate to further his international standing and make Martino take notice up close.
The possible inclusion of Everton’s Ramiro Funes Mori is perhaps slightly more problematic given that the 24-year-old has established himself as a key member of Martino’s senior set-up and looks certain to go to the Copa América. Following injury to Ezequiel Garay, Funes Mori was drafted in to play alongside Nicolás Otamendi in the World Cup qualifiers against Brazil and Colombia and it would seem has cemented his place as, at least the third choice centre back. Everton would presumably be none too keen on the idea of Funes Mori playing in two tournaments before reporting back to Merseyside with the new Premier League season underway.
Suppose for a moment that Martino does select these two, who might make up the remaining defenders? Emanuel Mammana looks like the only certainty and although his recent transfer to Fiorentina collapsed, the River defender is rated highly by both club and country and is capable of playing centrally or at right-back.
Jonathan Silva is looking to revive his career with Boca Juniors this season and given that he appeared in one of Martino’s senior squads in 2014, the 21-year-old may get the nod over other less experienced candidates for the left-back spot. Quilmes’ Lucas Suárez occupied the role most recently for the under-20s but will most likely be muscled out and at right-back there is decent competition with Belgrano’s Renzo Saravia and Rosario Central’s Víctor Salazar looking at home in the Argentine Primera. Bolstering the options centrally would presumably be between Nehuén Paz (Newell’s Old Boys), former Fulham defender Tiago Casasola or Lanús’ Facundo Monteseirín.
While the options available in midfield and attack are plentiful much may depend on who Martino decides is ready to join his Copa América squad. Matías Kranevitter has already proved that he appears at home playing at the highest level and in attack Paulo Dybala and Ángel Correa look ready to challenge for starting roles. Who Martino selects to travel to the United States will have an obvious knock-on effect on this Olympic squad.
Presumably it will be the players almost certainly not considered for the senior squad but who Martino feels are closest to pushing for a future place and would therefore benefit most from the tournament experience. Adrián Cubas, Gastón Gil Romero, Mauricio Martínez or Gonzalo Escalante would all be options in the number five role and in a more advanced midfield role the likes of Manuel Lanzini, Joaquín Correa, Rodrigo de Paul, Leandro Paredes, Giovani Lo Celso or Franco Cervi would all be vying for selection.
If Dybala and Correa do indeed travel with the Copa América squad it would open up some places in attack but competition remains fierce. Mauro Icardi, Luciano Vietto, Lucas Ocampos, Jonathan Calleri, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Martín Benítez and Cristian Espinoza would all be considered for what is most likely to be only four forward selections.
How Martino balances his two squads with the goal of triumphing in both tournaments will be intriguing but with such a wealth of talent, Argentina remains the envy of almost every footballing nation.