While the Barcelona wizard’s presence is assured, there are still plenty of doubts surrounding the Albiceleste just days before the competition begins
To paraphrase Diego Maradona’s praise of Javier Mascherano prior to the 2010 World Cup, Argentina at the Copa America truly are Lionel Messi and 10 others.
The Barcelona wizard was coaxed back into the international setup during the build-up to the tournament in Brazil, and will once again attempt to break his drought with the Albiceleste.
Messi and Argentina’s long road to possible glory begins with a clash against Colombia on Saturday, a test which will give a good indication of their overall chances of taking the Copa.
Outside Leo, however, there are plenty of question marks surrounding this team.
Coach Lionel Scaloni – since taking over from Jorge Sampaoli – has taken big strides in renewing a tired-looking team, dispensing in the process with many of the names that fell in the last 16 at the World Cup.
Indeed, just nine players have survived the cull, with less than half boasting more than 10 caps for their country.
Scaloni has rotated heavily in his friendly matches so far, meaning that Argentina go into the Copa with no clear idea of what their default starting line-up may be.
There are plenty of options to choose from though, especially in the final third where the rookie coach could still spring a few surprises.
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Defensively, and due more to Argentina’s own limitations than any tried and tested formula, Scaloni appears to have a more or less fixed idea in mind.
Having seen his experiment with three at the back fail miserably against Venezuela, a four-man defence is almost certain to be his first choice. Behind them Franco Armani is likely to start the Copa in goal, with Esteban Andrada’s blooper for Boca Juniors in their Copa Superliga final defeat to Tigre perhaps tipping the balance definitively in favour of the River Plate man.
Racing Club’s Renzo Saravia is the obvious option at right-back and indeed the only man to play that role naturally in the squad following Gabriel Mercado’s omission.
German Pezzella and Nicolas Otamendi are favourites to start in the middle, while Nicolas Tagliafico will retain his spot on the left boosted by a fantastic Champions League campaign with Ajax. River’s Milton Casco deputises for Tagliafico, while Juan Foyth and Ramiro Funes Mori will serve as understudies for the first-choice central pairing.
It is in midfield where certain dilemmas may arise. Scaloni has picked a squad rather short on choices to anchor the engine room, which leaves Leandro Paredes and Tigres’ Guido Rodriguez almost certain to act as a double pivot when the tournament kicks off.
The decision over which players line up outside that duo depends substantially on whether Argentina opt for more creativity or mobility, as well as the formation Scaloni chooses.
Giovani Lo Celso enjoyed a fine season with Real Betis but has looked shackled in previous outings as part of a midfield trio for the Albiceleste, which could lead to Roberto Pereyra getting the nod in a 4-3-3 set-up.
If, on the other hand, Scaloni tries a 4-2-3-1 formation, Lo Celso would be a natural selection in the middle, with Messi and Angel Di Maria flanking the former PSG man.
Lo Celso did his chances no harm with a fine performance during Friday’s 5-1 thrashing of Nicaragua, linking with Messi well throughout and providing a creative touch that has been sorely missing for the national team in recent years.
Further up the field Sergio Aguero and Lautaro Martinez are the prime candidates to lead the attacking line, Aguero’s superior experience naturally giving him the edge at this point despite featuring in just a single match since the World Cup.
Like Lo Celso, Martinez was the big winner against Nicaragua with two goals in the second half after coming off the bench and, whether it is from the start or as a substitute, will almost certainly play a significant role at this Copa.
Messi is likely to continue in his favoured position on the right while Di Maria takes the left side of attack. There is likely to be little room for Paulo Dybala after failing to impress for either club or country over the last 12 months, although Scaloni could yet spring a surprise by including Martinez or River’s Matias Suarez – both of whom linked well with Messi against Venezuela – alongside Aguero and giving Messi a free role in the final third.