Lionel Messi may not have pulled on an Argentina shirt since France unceremoniously dumped La Albiceleste out of the World Cup but it doesn’t prevent the Barcelona star remaining the main topic of question as interim manager Lionel Scaloni prepares his squad for another friendly.
Argentina play México twice over the coming week starting on Friday evening in Córdoba before heading to Mendoza for a second friendly on Tuesday.
Just as has been the case for all of Scaloni’s tenure so far, Messi isn’t involved and so it is another change for the interim coach and Argentina’s new look, younger squad to impress.
Victories over Guatemala and Iraq, a draw with Colombia and even the narrow defeat to Brazil all showed promise but the two points of most uncertainty remain the most newsworthy points – namely the futures of Scaloni and Messi.
“I’ve not spoken with him [Messi] about whether he’s coming to the Copa América,” Scaloni said in his pre-match press conference on Thursday. “We talk about specific things, topics regarding the team.
“I [believe] that he will return to the national team, but it isn’t a topic we have touched on and that we are thinking about.”
Whether or not it is something the pair have discussed, the prospect of Messi returning is one which every Argentine dreams of. In the meantime, Scaloni is doing an admirable job in preparing a new generation for next year’s Copa América and the initial steps towards the World Cup in 2022.
“The main goal is to add quality players and to form a way of playing. If Messi returns tomorrow, the idea is that he can feel comfortable.”
It is still early days but after the chaotic mess that Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina unravelled into, Scaloni has already established something of an identity and added a number of quality young players, who either missed out on the World Cup in Russia or were inexplicably underused.
Giovani Lo Celso and Leandro Paredes, Argentina’s new midfield certainly fall into this category as does Paulo Dybala, who will be given another opportunity to prove his worth against Mexico.
While Sampaoli’s failure to find a way to play Dybala with Messi drew criticism it is also fair to say that the Juventus star, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Thursday, has consistently underwhelmed for Argentina with or without the world’s best player.
“Paulo Dybala always plays in offensive positions, and tends to take up positions on the right side of the pitch because of him being a left footer. We think that shows his best version,” Scaloni stated before revealing his starting eleven to face México.
Dybala will start in attack with Lautaro Martínez but will likely have the license to drift out to the right with Angel Correa or Marcos Acuña bombing on down the opposite flank.
Injury withdrawals to Nicolás Otamendi and Germán Pezzella could see Juan Foyth make his debut, provided the Tottenham Hotspur youngster is fit, but otherwise it is an experienced back four. Gabriel Mercado will start if Foyth isn’t given the all clear, partnered by Ramiro Funes Mori with Nicolás Tagliafico continuing on the left and Renzo Saravia looking to build on his positive debut last month.
“Several of the guys who are in the National Team today know each other from the clubs. In the current squad there are lots of young players, we have 23 or 24-year-old players who have a great future; We must give them a place.”
Scaloni has certainly done that and it is a policy which must continue going forward, whoever the AFA eventually hand the reins to on a permanent basis. For all the talk of Argentina’s crisis at youth level, Scaloni’s problem is an enviable one for most coaches.
“We are fortunate to have great players from all different leagues. The main problem is to put together a squad and, inevitably, to have to leave out players of such a level.
“The teams that we have prepared are with a view to the future.”
That future remains very uncertain but is not necessarily as bleak as many thought only a few months ago.
Argentina XI: Agustín Marchesín; Renzo Saravia, Juan Foyth or Gabriel Mercado, Ramiro Funes Mori, Nicolás Tagliafico; Ángel Correa, Giovani Lo Celso, Leandro Paredes, Marcos Acuña; Paulo Dybala, Lautaro Martínez.