Having watched closely on Thursday evening as Uruguay were dumped out of the tournament, Argentina know that finishing top of Group D will now bring either México or Venezuela in the quarter finals. After an opening game victory against Chile, that appears likely but La Albiceleste must first guarantee their qualification with a win over Panama on Friday.
The clash against champions Chile was always likely to be the critical fixture in the group and having won without the aid of captain Lionel Messi, confidence is high in the Argentina camp.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is available for Friday night’s match in Chicago after recovering from the back injury that he sustained in the final warm-up game against Honduras and Gerardo Martino confirmed that the 28-year-old would feature.
“He [Messi] has trained normally with the group since Wednesday without any pain and so he will play,” said the Argentina coach.
“Leo is very motivated and very excited after the performance of his teammates against Chile.
“Doing it without him [Messi] is a big handicap and so the conditions for him to return to the team are very good,” Martino explained.
It is a huge boost to Argentina to have Messi available but after the strong performances of Nicolás Gaitán and Ángel Di María there is no rush to throw the Barcelona star into action.
Panama have a reputation as something of a physical side and so it is thought that Martino may name the same starting eleven that triumphed against Chile and introduce Messi as a substitute later in the game to ease him into the tournament.
Gonzalo Higuaín echoed these thoughts in an interview he gave to Argentine newspaper Olé, “We had to win because it’s a tough Copa. Great teams are playing and it was important to start with three points. Then you can let Leo recover and play when he is well.”
The Napoli striker is expected to start again in the number nine role ahead of Sergio Agüero and anticipates a difficult game against Panama that will allow no room for complacency.
“We saw a compact and tough team. They are physically strong, with players that play well in space and they are a team that will generate threats,” explained Higuaín.
Probable starting XI: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Nicolás Otamendi, Ramiro Funes Mori, Marcos Rojo; Augusto Fernández, Javier Mascherano; Nicolás Gaitán, Éver Banega, Ángel Di María; Gonzalo Higuaín
Panama arrive in Chicago in good shape after Blas Pérez’s brace gave Los Canaleros victory over Bolivia and while a win against Argentina would be on altogether another level, whichever side emerges with three points from Friday’s game is virtually guaranteed a spot in the quarter final.
Panama coach Hernán Darío Gómez was adamant that his side would not be overawed,“We are not scared of facing Argentina. They are the runners-up of the World Cup and the Copa America, but do not scare us.”
However, regarding the potential involvement of the world’s best player, Gómez added, “You can work a lot to build a team, but against Messi there’s nothing you can do.
“If Messi’s inspired he can kill anyone. One works on tactics and has a team but individuals are above that in football. Messi is a man who is above everyone.”
The only time Argentina have faced Panama was a friendly in 2009 where a squad made up of local players won 3-1 in Santa Fe. Matías Defederico and Gonzalo Bergessio (2) with the goals. Nicolás Otamendi, while still with Vélez Sarsfield. also played in this match and will be in the starting eleven again on Friday.