Renegade Sampaoli opts for cautious Argentina XI ahead of World Cup opener with Iceland

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For all the talk of 2-3-3-2 formations, Argentina throwing caution to the wind and Diego Maradona promptly lambasting the proposed ‘1930s’ system, Jorge Sampaoli looks set to tread carefully for La Albiceleste’s World Cup opener against Iceland.

For the third consecutive day at their training centre in Bronnitsy, Sampaoli worked with an unchanged side that will see Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia start at the base of a very much ‘safety first’ midfield.

Of course given the top-heavy nature of Argentina’s squad it is still not what would be considered a solid, defensive unit but with winger Eduardo Salvio being converted into Sampaoli’s first choice right-back, the Benfica wide-player’s offensive output will be counterbalanced by Biglia and Mascherano holding.

Sampaoli has stressed the importance of his full-backs providing the width in his side and in selecting Salvio over Gabriel Mercado, that will be the plan down the right.

 

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Maxi Meza, the Independiente midfielder and relative unknown factor for many outside Argentina, will start in front of Salvio and be one of those players looking to link midfield to attack but will take his position often from the spaces left from Lionel Messi’s roaming role.

This will allow Salvio to operate along the right in a way that perhaps Nicolás Tagliafico,  on the opposite side, won’t be able to with quite the same freedom.

Angel Di María keeping his place on the left, ahead of Cristian Pavón, will likely stay wider than Meza and so the impetus will not be on Tagliafico as much to overlap. The Ajax defender, a good reader of the game and strong in the tackle, can even slot in at centre-back and provides the type of structural flexibility that Sampaoli desires.

Mascherano and Biglia shielding the central defensive pairing of Nicolás Otamendi and Marcos Rojo did little to protect the Argentina goal in March’s 6-1 defeat and so Sampaoli knowing that Iceland will not offer the same type of threat will be hoping that his defence will not be exposed in the same way.

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Ever Banega returned to full training on Wednesday but the Sevilla midfielder and Giovani Lo Celso, the two more creative midfield options, look likely to have wait their chance.

Some would argue that Sampaoli abandoned his cavalier instincts when selecting his squad, opting for a more familiar, conservative squad than the one many called for.

The Copa América-winning coach has his reasons for choosing this group and from the outside it is impossible to know better but aside from the decision to go with Salvio, it is undoubtedly a reserved Argentina starting eleven.

With opinion divided and pessimism rampant back home, Sampaoli knows that defeat to Iceland would only intensify the pressure.

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