Thursday's World Cup qualifier in Montevideo could be a classic
Lionel Messi scored twice for Barcelona on Saturday, while Mauro Icardi was twice on target for Inter Milan and Paulo Dybala helped himself to a hat-trick for Juventus.
In the course of one afternoon, then, the three Argentinian strikers accumulated seven goals – almost half as many as the national team have managed in 14 rounds of World Cup qualifiers.
Round 15 comes up this Thursday, and its undoubted highlight is Argentina’s visit to Uruguay. Under new coach Jorge Sampaoli, it is expected that Messi, Icardi and Dybala will form Argentina’s new attacking trident.
They will have very little time on the training field. Messi and Dybala have little experience of playing together. In the current campaign there were just 45 minutes in the home game against Uruguay until Dybala was sent off. They did team up in June under Sampaoli in a friendly against Brazil in Australia, when the trident was completed by centre forward Gonzalo Higuain, who has now been replaced by Icardi. Argentina, then are relying on the instinctive capacity of quality footballers to find an immediate understanding.
In defence, meanwhile, coach Sampaoli is hoping that that things will click into place without being able to count on anything like the same individual quality.
For the first time for his country Javier Mascherano has been chosen as a defender. Sampaoli, of course, was very successful with the similarly small central midfielder Gary Medel slotting into the defensive line with the Chilean national team. But can Argentina press high enough up the field to prevent Mascherano’s lack of height being a problem against a team that carry a threat in the air? Elsewhere, Argentina’s central defensive resources do not run deep. Nicolas Otamendi is joined in the squad by the recalled pair of Nicolas Pareja and Federico Fazio.
Any signs of confusion in the Argentinian back line would normally be lighting up the eyes of Uruguay’s centre forward Luis Suarez, one of the best in the world at operating on the shoulder of the last defender. Suarez, though, has picked up a knee injury. He has flown back to Montevideo in a last gasp bid to be fit for Thursday’s game – and he has previous in coming straight back from injury to make an impact, as England will recall. Also out injured for Uruguay are strikers Abel Hernandez and Diego Rolan. In the absence of Suarez, Edinson Cavani will probably be supported by Christian Stuani, although a first senior call up for PSV’s gifted Gaston Pereiro is an interesting sign. Coach Oscar Washington Tabarez has kept faith with a small group – Uruguay have only used 28 players in the campaign, everyone else has used more – and breaking into the ranks is no easy task. Injuries to others have opened the door for the lanky Pereiro, and it is up to him to take advantage.
There are two other newcomers. On loan from Real Madrid to La Coruna, Federico Valverde has been promoted from the under-20 team to add quality to central midfield, and Las Palmas defender Mauricio Lemos has been drafted in after a fine club campaign.
The central midfield and defensive positions have become a worry for Tabarez. His team aim to be tough to play against – an objective they have not fulfilled in recent times because they have been conceding too many goals. Uruguay have lost their last three World Cup qualifiers, letting in nine goals in the process. Things did not improve in June, where they conceded six more in two friendlies. Tabarez will hope to tighten up against the threat posed by Messi, Dybala and Icardi.
It is this combination of strengths and weaknesses on both sides that makes Thursday’s match so interesting – that and a glance at the table.
In recent campaigns Uruguay always hosted Argentina in the final round – and usually one side had qualified and the other not. This time, in the 15th round of 18, there is plenty at stake for both sides. The loser will find themselves in serious trouble.
Does that mean that caution will prevail, and that both sides will spend more time covering up their own weak points than attempting to exploit those of the opponent? This is a possible scenario. But it is not one that sits well with the reputation of Jorge Sampaoli for sending his teams out to impose themselves on the game. If this happens on Thursday – Argentina come out to play and offer Uruguay the counter-attack – then there is every possibility of a spectacle that will live long in the memory.