Victory over Mexico four days ago in Córdoba once more signalled Argentina were moving on from their disastrous summer under Jorge Sampaoli and while there is still much to do ahead of next year’s Copa América and what will be a testing World Cup qualification process, La Albiceleste enter another critical moment along that path.
Interim coach Lionel Scaloni, who should be credited with steering the ship through troubled waters, takes charge of what the AFA suggested would be his final game in charge before a permanent appointment is made and so Tuesday’s second friendly meeting against Mexico provides one final opportunity to impress.
“Tomorrow is our last game, then we will see, we have no knowledge,” Scaloni told the press on Monday after arriving in Mendoza.
With few realistic options available to the AFA and Scaloni having made an impression with his rejuvenation of the squad, president Claudio Tapia has not only spoken positively about the 40-year-old but not exactly closed the door on Scaloni’s future with the national team.
“We are grateful for the words of [Claudio] Tapia because it means that we have done a good job. He [Tapia] told me that he is happy with what we are doing, but we do not talk about the future.
“I wouldn’t like to answer about something that I they haven’t offered. I don’t want to talk about a supposition. Things are as they are, or not. It could happen, or not and for the time being we are here until tomorrow.”
If it is indeed Scaloni’s last match in charge before he resumes control of the under-20s ahead of January’s South American Championships few could criticise the caretaker coach. Argentina have lost only once – that coming in the last minute against Brazil last month – and have won three of the five games during that time.
That late goal against Brazil being the only goal conceded and while at times the attack hasn’t quite clicked and as yet Scaloni has not managed to solve the puzzle of Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi in an Argentina shirt, La Albiceleste have been well organised, demonstrated some form of strategy and welcomed a host of youthful, new faces.
So has there been anything else that Scaloni would have changed? “Maybe not coaching Messi [has been] the only regret. I’m convinced that we did everything else that we had to do.”
That desire may still come to fruition if Scaloni goes from stop-gap to long-term appointment and Messi can be convinced to have another crack at the Copa América.
And there is an argument that the AFA should consider this. The atmosphere in the squad has been transformed and while a huge number of players have been used, the exciting midfield of Leandro Paredes and Giovani Lo Celso looks set to be central to any further plans.
Neither are in line to start in Tuesday’s second friendly as Scaloni rotates and gives the rest of his squad a chance. Santiago Ascacíbar will anchor the midfield and be supported by the in-form pair of Watford’s Roberto Pereyra and Udinese’s Rodrigo de Paul.
“We are testing all the players who are of national team level,” Scaloni admitted.
Mauro Icardi gets another shot in search of his maiden international goal and Erik Lamela and Maxi Meza aim to stake their claims going into an important 2019. Ramiro Funes Mori remains in the team from last Friday and Walter Kannemann is perhaps the only unfamiliar face in the back four.
“The goalkeeper is not a position that generates doubt, we only want to see,” the Argentina coach explained after confirming that Gerónimo Rulli will start in Mendoza.
Agustín Marchesín had played last week and it means that veteran Sergio Romero and Tottenham’s Paulo Gazzaniga may not feature.
“We thank Chiquito [Romero] for coming at a difficult time for everyone. For the first call-ups he was made available, he came to the United States and acted impeccably, for the second call-up he played.
“He is the goalkeeper who has played the most. He’s a tremendous goalkeeper. Now we want to see Gerónimo [Rulli], maybe we can also see Gazzaniga.”
This process of looking at a large number of players and handing debuts to 15 players over the past five matches have hugely benefitted Argentina and although it might be another coach who ultimately bears the fruit from this in 2019, Scaloni should be in the conversation.
Another impressive victory with a second eleven against Mexico on Tuesday will only strengthen that claim. Scaloni wants it, the players appear behind him and going by the reception in Córdoba and Mendoza this week suggest the country are coming back round.