Lionel Messi returns as Sampaoli settles on possible Argentina XI to face Spain

“Yesterday and today (Messi) trained and he was fine. I don’t think he will have any problem playing,” Jorge Sampaoli confirmed to the press ahead of Argentina’s friendly against Spain on Tuesday.

The Barcelona star missed the Italy game on Friday with muscle fatigue and without wanting to take any risks, Messi watched from the stands at the Etihad Stadium alongside Sergio Agüero.

“If there was a risk, Leo would say something. The day before the match against Italy he said he wasn’t fit to play and he didn’t.”

Messi appears to have confirmed himself that after training with the squad he has felt no discomfort and so Argentina will have their inspirational number ten back in the starting eleven.

Regardless, Sampaoli stressed the need to move away from any individual dependence, “We have to find a collective functionality, an identity and not depend on just one player.”

While Italy will not be in Russia, Spain will provide a real test of Argentina’s World Cup credentials and Sampaoli knows that his side are playing catch-up in terms of forming a team and a system of play.

“What we are looking for, Spain have already consolidated. Spain know very clearly how to play. They are the best if not among the best in the world.

“We have to fight to get possession, which is Spain’s biggest weapon. We will need precision and courage. Spain have found high-level players and an identity that cannot be negotiated. We have to re-establish Argentine football. We have to try to find an identity.

“Spain is a very big rival but my players have trained very well in recent days to be strong and that gives me confidence.”

Messi’s return will not be the only change to the side that celebrated a 2-0 win over Italy.

Friday’s man of the match Willy Caballero will make way for Argentina’s more familiar number one Sergio Romero, with Sampaoli eager to give all his goalkeepers some minutes.

Ever Banega came off the bench to open the scoring in Manchester and with Leandro Paredes having picked up a shoulder injury, the Sevilla schemer comes into central midfield with Javier Mascherano. El Jefecito was an unused substitute against Italy but closes in on breaking Javier Zanetti’s appearances record in his favoured defensive midfield role.

Marcos Rojo is set to make his first Argentina appearance since defeat in La Paz to Bolivia during World Cup qualification in March 2017, and despite struggling to win his place back in the Manchester United will hoping to do enough to impress Sampaoli.

And lastly, Manuel Lanzini, so impressive in the victory over Italy misses out with a knee injury and in his place looks likely to be debutant Maxi Meza.

Meza, a dynamic attacking midfielder who has impressed immeasurably at Independiente over the past year, could provide a useful link with teammate Fabricio Bustos down the right and offer the flexibility to drift inside if Messi moves to the right.

“Maxi is here and has the same chances as everyone. He is in a great moment in Argentine football and, like Lautaro Martínez, compares with the players who have been with us for a long time. Hopefully in a short time, they can take their chance. They have all been very good in training.”

With supposedly 80% of his World Cup squad already decided, this friendly is a final opportunity to impress. As Sampaoli admitted, “we are evaluating all players,” and the door isn’t closed on the likes of Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, so a strong performance in Madrid could just push someone onto the plane to Russia.

“We will define the starting XI later tonight,” Sampaoli confirmed but based on training this could be how Argentina line-up in Madrid.

Argentina probable starting XI: Sergio Romero; Fabricio Bustos; Nicolás Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Nicolás Tagliafico; Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega; Maximiliano Meza, Giovani Lo Celso. Lionel Messi; Gonzalo Higuaín


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