Argentina resume their World Cup qualification process this week but the return of Lionel Messi, the replay of the Copa América final against Chile in Santiago and the prospect of building on the positive result in Colombia last time out has been overshadowed by the state of the playing surface in Córdoba, where the Albiceleste play Bolivia in just over a week, and several withdrawals from the squad through injury. Gerardo Martino’s response to the absences has sparked further debate as his decision to hand 28-year-old Lanús forward, Lautaro Acosta a first senior call-up has been widely questioned.
Gerardo Martino still finds himself under a degree of pressure after his failure to end Argentina’s 23-year trophy drought in Chile last summer and a hugely disappointing start to World Cup qualification. The 53-year-old, former Barcelona manager perhaps loosened the noose slightly with victory away to Colombia but as a result of the earlier defeat at home to Ecuador and the goalless draw with Paraguay, Argentina remain outside the qualification places and are currently the lowest scorers in South America.
With this in mind, Argentina remain on something of a precipice and the upcoming double-header with Chile and Bolivia is crucial to easing fears and moving towards qualification.
A reunion with Chile, less than a year on since Alexis Sánchez converted the penalty that handed La Roja their first international title, is already a significant event in the South American footballing calendar. After the departure of Jorge Sampaoli, Chile have turned to another Argentine coach in Juan Antonio Pizzi and in this transitional stage are vulnerable.
Lionel Messi returning from injury for his first taste of 2018 World Cup qualification is a major boost for Gerardo Martino and Argentina will travel to Santiago with more confidence than they would have done at the end of 2015.
However, it has been the AFA’s decision to move Argentina’s home match with Bolivia to the Estadio Mario Kempes in Córdoba that has drawn more headlines in the nation’s media. Following recent concerts by Iron Maiden and Mana, the pitch has been left in a ‘deplorable’ state as Gerardo Martino was quoted and in an effort to have this ready for the national team next Tuesday, ground staff have been working tirelessly to relay part of the turf.
Repairs began today on the pitch in Córdoba where Argentina play Bolivia on March 29th pic.twitter.com/grRraLHCes
— Peter Coates (@golazoargentino) March 17, 2016
The matter is obviously of concern to the players with Sergio Agüero admitting that he and his Manchester City compatriots were discussing this on the plane to Buenos Aires. “On the plane we talked about the pitch, but supposedly they will do their best to make it ok. It is surprising to see these things because it is not common. When I look at the photos, I think ‘What happened here?’ We will wait to see how the pitch responds.”
While there is nothing wrong with taking the national team away from Buenos Aires and allowing people from the provinces to see the nation’s stars in action, the organisation and infrastructure has to benefit the players first and foremost. On Tuesday, it remains to be seen if Córdoba is the best place for that.
Aside from debate over the pitch, injuries to Gerardo Martino’s squad and his response has created it’s own share of headlines. Benfica’s Nicolás Gaitán has been the most recent withdrawal and will leave the camp immediately to continue treatment in Portugal but he is not alone. Javier Pastore and Enzo Pérez have both already been ruled out and on Monday when the squad trained for the first time in Ezeiza, Nicolás Otamendi, Mateo Musacchio and Paulo Dybala all trained separately due to injury concerns.
All are still doubts for at least Thursday’s trip to Santiago but in light of the fitness issues, Martino has drafted in Lautaro Acosta from Primera División side, Lanús. The 28-year-old was a teammate of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero when they lifted the 2007 Under-20 World Cup and the following year when Argentina won gold at the Beijing Olympics. However, after an injury blighted move to Sevilla in 2008, the forward’s domestic career highlights have been with Lanús, the Buenos Aires province based club, where he began his career. Despite often shining for El Granate, his selection by Martino on Monday was met with a great deal of surprise and a modicum of ridicule.
The shock was not lost on Acosta, who told reporters: “It gives me great joy to be in the national team, I cannot believe it.”
The disbelief stems from the fact that in attacking positions Argentina are certainly not short of options. However, Martino has often called players from Argentina’s domestic league and given the late notice it is certainly easier to incorporate these players into training. Whether or not Argentina call on any more players if there are further injuries, remains to be seen but ahead of two highly important matches, the pitch and injury replacements are two subjects that La Albiceleste would have preferred to avoid.