In just over a week Argentina begin their Copa América campaign against Colombia in Salvador but before that Lionel Scaloni takes his squad to San Juan for a final friendly against Nicaragua to complete preparations.
There were few surprises in Scaloni’s 23-man group and only a couple of doubts within the starting eleven which the 41-year-old coach confirmed to the press on Thursday evening. As ever the position of Lionel Messi and how to get the best from the captain is the conundrum facing Scaloni and while Argentina are trying not to focus on that, Scaloni knows that if Messi can reproduce anywhere near his Barcelona form then La Albiceleste’s hopes improve tenfold.
“If we play the way we want and Messi does what he does every Sunday, we will probably do well,” Scaloni told reporters.
Finding the way to help Messi achieve this level has been something that Argentina coaches have struggled with for a decade and now Scaloni has a new set of teammates in order to provide support to what have invariably been virtuoso displays from the world’s best player.
“We are working on creating a team and if we get a team with everyone at their best it will be even better. The idea is what we have tried to convey in most of the matches, where we were solid while still being offensive. We’re focused on being a team that’s hard to beat and not solely on whether Leo or others fit in – the focus is putting together a team.
“I want the best players to be able to show that when Messi plays. [Giovani] Lo Celso is one the best that is obvious, he has had a spectacular season and he has to prove that on the pitch when Leo is also there. The dream is that they link-up in matches as they do in training.”
The role of Lo Celso will clearly be an important one given the often lack of support for Messi in attacking positions and certainly if the Argentina captain is to resume his free-role, drifting in off the right then Argentina’s creative midfielder will be tasked with finding those spaces to exchange passes and relieve the pressure.
There has never been any doubting Argentina’s firepower in attack but it has proved far more difficult than simply selecting the likes of Messi and Sergio Agüero and waiting for them to reproduce their devastating club form.
“We know that we have pure dynamite up front, not just Leo, but also [Sergio] Agüero, Lautaro [Martínez]. Players who can score a lot of goals. If we are solid we will naturally have a greater chances,” Scaloni explained perhaps guilty of oversimplifying what has been Argentina’s biggest issue.
Confirming that Messi and Agüero will start against Nicaragua in attack, Scaloni’s somewhat surprising choice was River Plate’s Matías Suárez to complete the trident.
“Matías Suárez is a player that I like, he has something different. He is very interesting and links up very well with the rest of the players.
“I never pigeon-hole myself to a system or positions but of course there are three strikers and it is Matías [Suárez] who will have the most responsibility when it comes to tracking back.”
This idea of pressing high up the pitch and trying to win the ball back has been central to Scaloni’s game-plan since his initial status as interim coach and Suárez has clearly impressed within Marcelo Gallardo’s similar system that he can carry out similar duties for La Albiceleste.
“If we win possession, what I like is to attack as quickly as possibly, especially when we win the ball in offensive position. This is the concept that we transmit to the players.”
One player who had successfully done this for Scaloni during the friendly matches at the end of 2018 was Exequiel Palacios but the River youngster’s hamstring injury saw a late call-up for Guido Pizarro. The Tigres midfielder is competing for a starting role in Brazil but while it appears that Guido Rodríguez is in pole position for that holding role, Scaloni explained his choice for replacing Palacios.
“[Ezequiel] Palacios was a very important player for me and the truth was that it was difficult to accept when we heard of his injury. Calling him to inform him that he wasn’t going to be included is the worst thing for a coach. Watching the training and seeing what we wanted, we took a day and a half to think calmly and decided on Pizarro.
“He can play in the middle, as a holding midfielder but can also play – he is a box-to-box midfielder.”
The only other debatable point in the starting eleven is the inclusion of Marcos Acuña at left back over Nicolás Tagliafico, who is not only a natural in the position but is coming off a tremendous season with Ajax.
“Acuña and Tagliafico have both had minutes and both are players with status within the squad. There is no final decision on which of the two will play,” Scaloni admitted when also explaining that Franco Armani’s position in goal is also not completely set in stone.
“I can not guarantee that the goalkeeper in the Copa América will be Armani,” providing some hope to Boca Juniors number one Esteban Andrada.
And so while there are some areas of doubt that perhaps the friendly against Nicaragua will clear up before the tournament debut against Colombia, Scaloni is almost decided.
“I do not think there are too many changes for the Copa América, and those who play will have the opportunity to show that they are in the starting line-up.
“We are not thinking of a team with only eleven players, tomorrow [against Nicaragua] eleven play but that doesn’t mean the same eleven play Colombia. Most probably will but it’s not decisive: everyone is available.”