It perhaps wasn’t the shake up many expected when Argentina appointed Jorge Sampaoli but after a fraught qualification campaign, La Albiceleste have the 23 that will head to Russia next month aiming to go one better than four years ago.
The big question was always likely to be whether or not Mauro Icardi would be selected but as had been rumoured the Inter captain was left out in favour of the more familiar faces of Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín.
There can still be no doubting the quality of an attack that boasts the world’s best player, Lionel Messi, Agüero, Higuaín and his Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala but huge question marks remain over this squad and whether they really can challenge in Russia.
Agüero yet to make his full return from knee surgery backed up by only one other number nine option, Gonzalo Higuaín, who despite scoring plenty at club level carries plenty of baggage in an Argentina shirt and mental obstacles to overcome.
Icardi’s brief trial at the tip of Sampaoli’s attack didn’t work but fleeting appearances in a struggling side with qualification in the balance was hardly the ideal breeding ground for success. The prolific Inter centre forward’s time will come but it won’t be in Russia and should Agüero and/or Higuaín fluff their lines, this decision will haunt Sampaoli.
Racing Club renegade Ricardo Centurión was discarded in preference for the perhaps safer option of Independiente’s Maxi Meza but there were otherwise few real surprises.
“We came to these names after a lot of analysis in every position. These players are those who are closest to the idea of how we want to play,” Sampaoli explained in his press conference.
With this in mind, there is an obvious flexibility within the squad with Sporting’s Marcos Acuña and Benfica’s Eduardo Salvio included as possible full-backs but more naturally suited to more attacking positions on either flank and Javier Mascherano, no longer guaranteed a starting role, but a useful option to Sampaoli either in central defence or in his preferred number five position.
Torino’s Cristian Ansaldi, overlooked for a long time, made a late surge into the squad and Sampaoli explained that his ability to play at either full-back position was vital.
However, all this width has left Argentina looking a little short centrally. Lucas Biglia, still not fit after his back injury, is the obvious first choice defensive midfielder but Mascherano remains the only natural back-up.
Leaving a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Giovani Lo Celso, Manuel Lanzini and Ever Banega in those attacking, creative spaces.
As yet it isn’t even clear how Argentina will line-up, Sampaoli tried his preferred three-man defence, then switched to a back four but has still discussed both as options. Resolving this and finding a functional system is what matters over the next few weeks, without this, only the greatest optimist could see Argentina challenging.
Javier Mascherano (Hebei Fortune)
Éver Banega (Sevilla)
Giovani Lo Celso (PSG)
Maximiliano Meza (Independiente)
Manuel Lanzini (West Ham)
Ángel Di María (PSG)
Lucas Biglia (Milan)
Eduardo Salvio (Benfica)