- Argentina are expected to make changes for their must-win clash with Nigeria
- Diego Zandrino assesses the battle to play in goal and up front
- Will Di Maria, Dybala and Pavon start behind the forwards?
By Diego Zandrino with Argentina
In under 24 hours, Argentina have gone from feeling dejected to believing again. Nigeria’s win over Iceland means that La Albiceleste still have a shot at advancing to the Round of 16 at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
- If Argentina beat Nigeria and Iceland fail to overcome Croatia, La Albiceleste will progress.
- If both Argentina and Iceland win, goal difference (currently -3 and -2 respectively) will come into play as the first tie-breaker.
- If Argentina win 2-0 and Iceland triumph 2-1, the two teams will be level on points, goal difference and goals scored, both overall and in the head-to-head. It would therefore go down to whoever has the superior fair play record: Iceland have the edge at present, with 0 points to Argentina’s -3.
- If Argentina fail to win, they will be knocked out whatever happens elsewhere.
Ahead of this must-win match, the onus is on Jorge Sampaoli to boost confidence in the camp and find the right blend on the pitch. This has been sorely lacking so far, especially in the second half against Croatia.
Despite using 18 of the 23 players he has brought to Russia, Sampaoli has been left with more questions than answers and has selection dilemmas in every department.
Between the sticks
Should he keep faith with Willy Caballero after his slip-up led to Croatia’s opening goal?
Waiting in the wings are Franco Armani, who remains uncapped, and Nahuel Guzman, who was only drafted in as a replacement for the injured Sergio Romero but has made six appearances for La Albiceleste and was ever-present in the squad during qualifying.
There is no clear frontrunner to get the nod if the coach decides to drop Caballero.
Should he play three, four or five at the back?
The formation is likely to dictate which players are picked, rather than the other way around. The defence has looked shaky thus far and, in his attempts to shore it up, Sampaoli has used every defender in the squad except fullback Cristian Ansaldi and centre-back Federico Fazio.
Though he was tipped as a starter before the tournament, Fazio has yet to see any action. Both Marcos Rojo and Gabriel Mercado have had a chance to stake their claim, playing in one game apiece. Only centre-half Nicolas Otamendi and left-back Nicolas Tagliafico appear to be assured of their places at the back.
Should he stick with two holding midfielders or sacrifice one for a more attack-minded player?
Manuel Lanzini’s injury in the run-up to the competition threw a spanner in the works for Sampaoli, who had envisaged the West Ham schemer in a playmaking role, linking up with Lionel Messi. The tactician has toyed with fielding Giovani Lo Celso alongside Mascherano or further forward, but when push has come to shove, has paired Masche with less creative players: first Lucas Biglia and then Enzo Perez.
Moreover, when he took Perez off against the Croats, he opted to bring on Paulo Dybala in the hole. Lo Celso, the squad’s only natural playmaker, has yet to get on the pitch.
Ever Banega, who was introduced in the second half against Iceland, is another option combining industry and guile. Those same qualities have made Marcos Acuna a safe bet to start in a wide position.
Who should he play on the flanks?
The wings are crucial for the way the coach wants to attack and whoever occupies them has a key role. Maximiliano Meza has not looked out of place and nor has Cristian Pavon when he has come off the bench, but neither has done enough to become an automatic pick. Sampaoli has said that he does not want to heap too much responsibility on the Boca Juniors youngster, but his pace could make a major difference up against fast, athletic defenders.
Angel Di Maria, meanwhile, is itching for a recall after going from starting against Iceland to warming the bench throughout against Croatia. His experience and leadership could prove priceless assets in this do-or-die match.
Sergio Aguero scored Argentina’s only goal at the World Cup to date and partnered Gonzalo Higuain up front in the latter stages of their opener, only to make way for him in their second encounter. Sampaoli may seek to deploy a penalty-box target man to mix it with the rugged Nigerian defence. Pipita‘s attributes set him apart in that area of the game. Another possibility is that Dybala might get his opportunity to take centre stage.
Despite all these question marks, the fact is that Argentina are still alive and kicking, something that seemed impossible amid the doom and gloom that followed the defeat by Croatia. Indeed, their fate is in their own hands and now they have to go all out to seize this lifeline in their final group fixture.