Can Jorge Sampaoli galvanise Argentina's squad of stars?
NOTE: This is translated from an original piece for ESPN Argentina.
These days, calm presides over the Argentinian National team. The World Cup is 100 days away and Argentina is enjoying a quiet time right after the storm it weathered during the qualifying round. The team, managed by Jorge Sampaoli, is preparing to face two high-level friendly matches against Italy and Spain. These matches will surely help Sampaoli in making the final decisions before assembling his final World Cup roster.
After so many international dates full of new players, Sampaoli will bet mostly on old reliable and known players in Russia. Gonzalo Higuain is a good example of that. The Juventus striker was absent during the final round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers but has been called upon lately by Sampaoli. Higuain was broadly questioned after the 2014 World Cup, in which he only scored once and missed a clear scoring opportunity during their final defeat to Germany. He didn't have a solid outing despite scoring more during the 2015 and 2016 Copa Americas, tournaments in which Argentina finished as runner-up. From there, he started to feel the resistance of fans.
Yet "Pipita" will be returning to an Argentina side he knows quite well. He will be joined by old teammates such as Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia, Angel Di María and last but not least, Lionel Messi. This core of players will certainly provide the core of the team in Russia.
Argentina will also feature surging younger players as a nod to a much-needed renewal of talent: names like Ramiro Funes Mori, Nicolas Tagliafico, Marcos Acuna, Eduardo Salvio, Leandro Paredes and Giovanni Lo Celso, among others. Some stars are less certain to get a call, like Mauro Icardi, Alejandro "Papu" Gomez, Paulo Dybala, Angel Correa and Emanuel Mammana. They are part of a broader group of guys who are depending on recent performances and hoping they can catch Sampaoli's eye during the next two months.
On the domestic front, there are players with a solid chance of making the final 23, in particular a pair of small gems in Argentine soccer: Lautaro Martínez and Cristian Pavon. They have been consistently good for Racing and Boca respectively and are certainly being pondered by the manager.
On the fringe, the likes of Carlos Tevez, Ricardo Centurion and goalie Franco Armani are being watched closely by Sampaoli. They seem to be on the outside looking in but could make the team if they shine in March and April. Sampaoli is also monitoring the evolution of several injured players. Midfielder Fernando Gago is highly regarded by the manager, who sees him as a huge part of the foundation of the team he wants in Russia
Ultimately, names are still yet to be defined. However, Sampaoli's challenge resides in finding a scheme that could work best for Argentina. With the high stress of qualifying firmly behind them, it's now time to see on the pitch what Sampaoli has preached so often. The months ahead and friendly matches will be paramount to see if the individuals that often carry the national team can finally mesh and perform as a unit.