This week saw Jorge Sampaoli conclude a brief tour of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, where he visited clubs whose squads include Argentina internationals. Also this week, Sampaoli started doing the same thing with clubs in Argentina. Wanting to leave nothing to chance, he wants to be informed about his players’ daily training regimes. But which players from the Superliga are actually in with a chance of heading to the World Cup with Argentina? I’m glad you asked!
Two who won’t be going are Boca Juniors pair Fernando Gago and Darío Benedetto. Both would very probably have been on the plane to Russia, but for serious injuries they suffered towards the end of last year which will keep them out for all (or near enough) of the rest of the season. Two of their team-mates are in consideration still, though. Cristian Pavón is a pretty one-dimensional wide forward in many ways, but his game has got a lot more consistent over the last year and he’s already proven he can produce it in the national team environment: he was a substitute in last November’s friendly away to Russia, and set up the only goal of the game for Sergio Agüero, earning a starting place for the defeat against Argentina’s group opponents Nigeria a few days later, when he acquitted himself better than most of his teammates. Midfielder Pablo Pérez is just coming back from an injury, and at the age of 32 he hasn’t yet played for Argentina, but Sampaoli is said to be a fan of his unfussy (if somewhat card-happy) midfield work.
In truth, there are probably a couple of midfielders better suited to the job than Pérez – namely Enzo Pérez, who was in the starting XI at the last World Cup final, and is currently considered one of the few players who’s all but guaranteed a place in the squad for Russia. He’s not getting any younger, and has had some injury issues of late, but his experience at national team level is an advantage. Maxi Meza is another possibility for the role. The 25-year-old Independiente man mostly featured on the right wing of their 4-2-3-1 last year, when he was an important cog in their Copa Sudamericana win. The 25-year-old hasn’t played for Argentina before, but his versatility – he can also play in central midfield and at right back – as well as his fine recent form have seen him make a late(ish) charge for consideration.
Two more of Meza’s Independiente clubmates are also in Sampaoli’s sights. Former Boca man Juan Sánchez Miño – who’s somehow got to be 28 years old since we were moaning on Hand Of Pod about his reluctance to play at left back when he broke into their first team – can play at left back, on the wing or in midfield, while Fabricio Bustos, at 21, has already been called up a couple of times by Sampaoli for right back, only to be frustrated on both occasions by injuries keeping him out of making the trips. Argentina aren’t exactly bursting at the seams with full backs on either side, and Bustos’ development and attacking style have won him plenty of fans.
A wildcard who might very well be straight on the plane to Russia (and who I completely forgot about before Matias reminded me on Twitter) is Franco Armani, the 31-year-old goalkeeper who’s just joined River Plate from Atlético Nacional. Armani won the Copa Libertadores with Nacional in 2016, and was in the process of getting Colombian nationality before moving back to Argentina, so that he could join José Pekerman’s squad. That now won’t be happening, but moving to one of the country’s biggest clubs, combined with Sampaoli’s unease at Sergio Romero’s lack of playing time, mean he might very well be in line for a place in the squad – even a starting role might not be completely out of the question, if his form for River is good.
The other player in consideration is the youngest of the lot – 20-year-old Lautaro Martínez of Racing. His performances at last year’s Sudamericano Sub 20 and subsequent Under-20 World Cup made him the only member of the youth team to come out of both competitions with any real credit (at this point I should point out that Ezequiel Barco didn’t join the squad for the Under-20 World Cup). He’s developing into an increasingly exciting forward, and has a very bright career ahead of him – but has the bad luck, this year at least, to be playing in the one position Argentina are enviably stocked in. As such, he probably won’t be heading to Russia, but will have to hope for injury to a more established player unless Sampaoli decides to take more forwards than expected.
Other names a little further down the list, but who’ve already been called up by Sampaoli, include River Plate centre back Jonatan Maidana, and Lanús pair Lautaro Acosta (a left winger) and José Luis Gómez (right back), who featured in the 1-0 friendly victory over Brazil which was Sampaoli’s first game in charge, but haven’t played under him since, and River midfielder Ignacio Fernández and his San Lorenzo counterpart Fernando Belluschi, both of whom have featured only briefly.