“We are candidates to win it [the World Cup], we cannot deny our essence,” Jorge Sampaoli told the press ahead of Argentina’s crucial World Cup preparation friendly. “Everyone makes us among the favourites for the World Cup and my obligation is to increase that, to try to make the rivals fear us even more, today Argentina is very respected.”
Argentina’s reputation and individuals may make them among the favourites in Russia but for anyone who watched La Albiceleste’s struggle through qualification, it is clear that Sampaoli still has a great deal to do.
That work begins on Friday as Argentina face Italy in Manchester before travelling to Madrid to take on Spain as part of the final preparation before Sampaoli names his final World Cup squad.
“These matches are not worth three points and the result won’t take us anywhere, so the important thing is to consolidate our ideas,” Sampaoli stressed on the importance of these games.
“The most important thing from this mini tour is to lock down our way of playing. There is no time to lose.”
And aside from solidifying these tactical ideas, which based on this week’s training appears to be a shift to a 4-2-3-1 of sorts rather than Sampaoli’s previous 3-3-3-1, the friendlies will serve as a means to finalising plans for the World Cup.
“Right now my mind is focussed on who will make the list of 23 players. Over these two games, I will determine the list for the World Cup squad.”
The only player who has always been guaranteed a place in Sampaoli’s squad is Lionel Messi and the Argentina coach said that his captain is ready to take the burden of expectation.
“This is going to be his team. He is the best of all and is in a stage of maturity that can he can carry the team on his shoulders.”
A role that perhaps Messi has taken on at Barcelona this season now more than ever.
“He has a lot of responsibility when it comes to passing things on to the others, if he is feeling good then it will be his team,” Sampaoli continued. “The best player in the world has to transmit something to the others. It is more his team than it is mine.”
Sampaoli had hoped to partner Messi with old friend Sergio Agüero, who he feels “can compliment each other very well” but injury looks to have scuppered those plans.
“We have been talking to team doctors at Manchester City and evaluating the situation to see if there is any possibility he [Agüero] can play any part in the two games. It looks like he will be sitting out the first one and we will see for the second one,” Sampaoli updated from Manchester.
“It’s worth the effort. We’ve spoken to City about him — if there is a substantial improvement he could travel to Madrid and play. But it is difficult because of the little time left.”
Whether or not Agüero is fit to play some part against Spain, the Manchester City striker looks to be Sampaoli’s first choice number nine. But while the Argentina manager admitted that his form at City has been tremendous, it is an earlier version of Agüero that Argentina want to unlock.
“For Agüero this is a great moment — although the best Agüero was the one at Independiente. Argentina needs that Agüero, one that dribbles, runs with the ball and is not so structured. His current version can be further improved.”
It is certainly true that Agüero has become more of a predatory penalty box presence from the 15-year-old who burst into the Independiente side but this younger version that dropped deep and ran at defenders is more fitting with Sampaoli’s vision of Argentina — players being flexible to their positions and interchanging.
Injury or not Sampaoli has been impressed with Agüero’s desire and involvement on the training pitch. In his absence Gonzalo Higuaín looks to be Argentina’s centre forward in these friendlies and after being left out of recent squads the Juventus striker now looks set for a place in Russia.
“I think he is really improved. He will have to prove what kind of player he is during the World Cup: one of the best strikers in the World.”
With this level of fierce competition, someone is going to be left disappointed come June when Argentina fly to Russia and as things stand it doesn’t look good for Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi.
Dybala has had a handful of chances for Argentina and by his own admission struggled to find his role when playing alongside Lionel Messi.
“It will be hard for Dybala to get used to our style, which is completely different from Juventus. We couldn’t improve his performances and we have to evaluate if the current players are better than Paulo or if we’ve to keep working with Paulo to improve his performance.”
Things look equally or even more bleak for Mauro Icardi, who appeared to finish World Cup qualifying in pole position but has now been dropped from the squad.
“Icardi’s situation is similar to Dybala’s. The comparison between Icardi’s performances at Inter and with Argentina is not the best. I realized that and felt that we have to work on it more. But we don’t have enough time.”
“Maybe his adaptation time is not a short one. I won’t dismiss him but we can’t afford to wait, as Argentina’s coach I have to focus on the partnerships on the pitch. Mauro scored four goals last weekend and if this will be his form I may struggle to make my decisions.”
The player who appears to have leaped to the front of the queue is Racing Club striker Lautaro Martínez, who Sampaoli has watched live on three occasions this season and twice witnessed hat-tricks.
The 20-year-old is set for his international debut during these friendlies and already appears to have agreed a $33 million move to Inter despite Borussia Dortmund’s late attempts to hijack the transfer.
Sampaoli is a big fan and working with him this week is in no doubt that Martínez will be a success: “He looks very mature, he will adapt to the change from Argentine to European football.”
This scouting from the Argentine top flight is something that Sampaoli and his staff have clearly been open to and aside from Racing’s Martínez, their local rivals Independiente have left an impression.
Nicolás Tagliafico (now of Ajax), Fabricio Bustos and Maxi Meza are all in the squad and while all three could feature, the two full-backs look almost certain.
“The idea is to play with two center-backs and two full-backs that provide possibilities of attack down the wings,” Sampaoli explained his probable shift to a back-four.
“Calling up Tagliafico and Bustos gives us the possibility of playing with more natural-looking full-backs.”
And potentially another change to the starting eleven could be the inclusion of West Ham United’s Manuel Lanzini.
“He has been one of our favourites since we came in but he has had a lot of problems with injuries and so we couldn’t see him.
“He is a vital player. In the essence of Argentine football, we need players in one-on-one situations and who can live in the spaces with Leo [Messi]. We have to find a player that moves close to Leo. That’s what we’re looking for.
Lanzini is rumoured to start in this potential starting eleven: Caballero; Bustos, Fazio, Otamendi, Tagliafico; Biglia, Paredes; Lanzini, Messi, Di María; Higuaín
Sampaoli on the goalkeepers: “We will try to give a match to each goalkeeper.”
On Ramiro Funes Mori: “We always waited for his recovery because he has the courage to wear the shirt, we wanted him to recover. We brought him to train so that he is close to the group and so that he knows what we want. We have him here although we think not with the possibility of competing many minutes.”
On Nicolás Otamendi: “For us, the arrival of Pep Guardiola at City enhanced the qualties of Otamendi. He is a top player and we are very happy he is here and that he is considered one of the best defenders in the world. Playing for the national team as you do at your club is not that difficult for him because there are so many things repeated for him.”