Under fire Jorge Sampaoli struggling to juggle attacking talent at Argentinaby Chloe Beresford / 06 October 2017, 15:21Tweet
The 2017/18 season may have only just gotten underway, but football fans all over the world already have one eye on Russia next summer.
A quadrennial feast for followers of the game, those who tune in always expect to see the globe’s very biggest stars pit their wits against each other. The competition just wouldn’t be the same without the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but we are facing the real prospect of the latter having to stay at home next summer.
Argentina only managed a 0-0 draw with Peru in the early hours of Friday morning, leaving them with a must-win situation away to Ecuador this Wednesday. La Albiceleste now sit sixth in the mammoth South American qualifying group, with only four automatic places available. Fifth would see them face a play-off match with New Zealand in November, but under-fire Coach Jorge Sampaoli assured the media that his side can still qualify.
"I am very confident that if we play with the conviction with which we did it today we will be in the World Cup," he said in his post-match comments.
"Today Argentina was far superior to Peru, playing with a lot of authority. The situation is not comfortable. But the ranking still depends on us. We could not beat them on the scoreboard but we did in the game. We are very hopeful for everything that comes."
With all due respect to the former Chile and Sevilla boss, beating teams on the scoreboard is what really counts and without it they will not be going to Russia at the end of the current domestic campaign. While many will point to the depth of talent in the Argentine attack as a way to ease the pressure on Sampaoli, it is exactly this strength that is drawing criticism for the Coach as he has failed to find a way to deploy his resources effectively.
Last night he handed a maiden start for 27-year-old Boca Juniors forward Dario Benedetto and - whilst he has been in superb domestic form, having scored 21 goals in 25 appearances last team - it seemed an odd choice to field a player with such little international experience in such a crucial fixture. Messi, of course, played behind him alongside Atalanta forward Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, another forward approaching 30 with only one previous start for the national side.
Everton and Lyon fans will have seen exactly what he can do at club level this term, the pint sized forward scoring a superb goal in each of his matches against them. However he is a vital part in the well-drilled Serie A side of Gian Piero Gasperini and expecting him to replicate his form in such a different setting is a big ask indeed.
Yet sitting on the bench for the entire game were two of Italy’s most in-form forwards in Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi, whilst Sergio Aguero had been excused through injury after a car crash and Gonzalo Higuain was not even named in the squad. The latter had been going through a short goal-drought earlier in September, but two goals in his last two matches signalled a return to normal before the international break.
Icardi too should have been expecting a place in the lineup. After having been completely frozen out of the national team under previous Coach Edgardo Bauza, the Inter striker seemed to have won the affection of Sampaoli but this time his absence was blamed on “physical problems” that clearly had not been an issue whilst he was scoring six goals in seven appearances for his club.
"For right now I have a problem where I can't play both Messi & Dybala together. They're too similar"— ItalianFootballTV (@IFTVofficial) October 5, 2017
Argentina's coach, Jorge Sampaoli pic.twitter.com/9meKGYrZAN
It is the omission of Dybala that seems the most mystifying, the in-form youngster having scored 10 goals in six starts for Juventus. If Sampaolo was picking on form alone, the Bianconeri number 10 would simply have to go in, but it seems like the the boss is still scratching his head over his so-called incompatibility with Messi. "As there is no time to work the Dybala-Messi relationship, we should go to something more concrete," he said in his pre-match press conference.
There may be other factors at play here, but you would think the most “concrete” aspect of securing World Cup qualification would be to ensure Jorge Sampaoli finds a solution to fielding his best players, bringing the most from a side brimming with attacking prowess.