Consecutive away victories over Colombia and Chile has put Argentina’s World Cup qualification back on track but given Gerardo Martino’s side are still playing catch up and have so far been less than convincing, question marks remain. Bolivia are next up for the Albiceleste and while the Andeans pose much less of a threat when not playing at the extreme altitude of La Paz, Tuesday’s clash in Córdoba remains one full of intrigue.
Martino still has much to do to convince the masses that he is the right man to lead Argentina to Copa América glory this summer, let alone the World Cup in 2018. Defensive fragility, midfield imbalance and the age old conundrum of getting the best out of Lionel Messi in a blue and white shirt remain unanswered.
On Tuesday, Argentina will be forced into changes but welcome Javier Mascherano back from suspension and so Martino is expected to name the following starting eleven: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Martín Demichelis, Javier Pinola, Marcos Rojo; Lucas Biglia, Javier Mascherano, Éver Banega; Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel Di María.
Higuaín set to replace Agüero at number nine
Despite plundering a remarkable 29 goals in 30 Serie A matches for Napoli this season, Gonzalo Higuaín still needs to win back over sections of Argentine supporters following high-profile misses in the World Cup final and the Copa América final. Martino left the 28-year-old striker out of his subsequent squad following his penalty miss in Chile but his irrepressible club form has made him impossible to ignore.
With 25 goals from his 54 international appearances, Higuaín boasts a decent strike rate for Argentina and although he hasn’t netted since the 6-1 win over Paraguay in the Copa América semi final, he looks set to replace Sergio Agüero as Martino’s number nine on Tuesday.
Agüero endured a difficult evening in Santiago last Thursday, against an albeit far sterner and more physical backline than Bolivia will muster, and so Pipita will be given an opportunity. Higuaín excelled in a front three during the previous qualifying campaign, where only Messi and Luis Suárez scored more, and Tuesday should be a chance to add more to his international tally.
Not even a shot against Chile but Messi keen to reach 50
Lionel Messi’s failure to register a shot on goal in the 2-1 win over Chile was the first time in 117 matches for club and country that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner hadn’t at least tried his luck. As incredible as the stat maybe, Messi was still instrumental in Argentina’s victory; dancing around Chilean players like training cones at times during the first half and laying on the winner for Gabriel Mercado.
Replicating his Barcelona form is nigh on impossible given the different personnel and system but without bellowing out instructions and demonstrably showing his patriotism, Messi gave a captain’s performance in Santiago.
Still a goal shy of his half century for Argentina, Messi is looking to close in on Gabriel Batistuta’s goal scoring record and starting in attack against Bolivia, he may well do just that.
The last hurrah of Demichelis points to the familiar area of weakness
The suspensions of both Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori will see Gerardo Martino name the unfamiliar and not entirely convincing central defensive pairing of Martín Demichelis and Javier Pinola. Nothing says Argentina have a shortage of world class defenders then the pairing of an out-of-form and painfully slow Demichelis and 33-year-old utility man, Javier Pinola, who last played for La Albiceleste in 2007.
Such was the shortage that when Demichelis announced his retirement after the Copa América, Gerardo Martino felt compelled to persuade him otherwise. Now in excess of 35 years of age, the Manchester City defender is again hinting at calling time on his international career. “The coach has to have an eye on the project. The truth is that for me the next World Cup is far for my body and my mind. All this makes me say that this may be my last game.”
Bolivia perhaps are not the side to take advantage of such a makeshift backline but surely if indeed this will be a game where the defence are given a relatively easy evening, it could have been a useful opportunity to give a chance to some players who may contribute to Argentina’s future.
Mascherano returns to midfield but wouldn’t he be better suited elsewhere?
Given what has just been said about the defence it seems odd that Gerardo Martino has available a player who is is a perennial fixture in the defence of what many would regard as the best club side in world football. If Javier Mascherano has been entrusted by Pep Guardiola and every Barcelona manager since to play at centre-back against the toughest opponents in Europe, surely the 31-year-old is a solid option against Bolivia.
Instead, El Jefecito will take his familiar number five role in front of the defence and replace the more than adequate young replacement, Matías Kranevitter. Not only would Mascherano greatly improve Argentina’s defence on Tuesday but the proposed midfield three of he, Lucas Biglia and Éver Banega is a tad on the cautious side against a Bolivia side most likely to pack players behind the ball.
All eyes on the playing surface at the Estadio Mario Kempes
Footage shot from a local newspaper’s drone appeared to show a still very patchy turf in Córdoba over the weekend and despite intense work over the past ten days, it looks as though it will be less than ideal when Argentina and Bolivia stride out on Tuesday evening.
An Iron Maiden concert and several matches have left large parts of the pitch looking more suitable for beach football than a World Cup qualifier and the players have openly voiced their concerns. The AFA’s objective of taking the national team out of Buenos Aires and to the provinces, where people identify with the team more than the clubs they support, has been met. Will the pitch likely make a difference to the result? Probably not but if it is as bad as it looks several European managers will be watching nervously at the prospect of players coming back injured.