While in a competitive sense Argentina’s next two World Cup qualifiers are next to meaningless, with the Albiceleste already safely on the plane to the finals, the clashes against Venezuela and Ecuador this week are of intense symbolic significance.
Friday and Tuesday’s outings will be almost the last competitive matches Lionel Scaloni’s men face before going into the tournament proper in Qatar this November, with the exception of the game scheduled against fellow continental champions Italy at Wembley – just as the late Diego Maradona would have wanted , surely – and that mysterious outstanding qualifier with Brazil that apparently must also be played at some point and somewhere on the planet in the next seven months or so.
Chances for players to make their mark and convince Scaloni they merit selection are running out; which is why it is perhaps fortuitous that a number of calamities prior to this double-header have left plenty of room in the coach’s starting line-up.
No fewer than three regular Scaloni starters – goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, defensive rock Cristian Romero and midfielder Giovani Lo Celso – plus fringe player Emiliano Buendía are suspended at least for Friday’s game due to the irregularities in paperwork that sparked those infamous, farcical scenes in Brazil last year, while Lautaro Martínez had to stay back in Italy thanks to a positive Covid test. Add to that injuries to Marcos Acúña, Lisandro Martínez and Alejandro Gómez and Gonzalo Montiel’s own suspension, not to mention fitness doubts over Lionel Messi following a nasty bout of flu, and the team that runs out at the Bombonera promises to look rather different than that to which we are accustomed.
The revised team will most likely blend the old – Martínez’s deputy between the post, 36-year-old Franco Armani, who gets the nod despite his clanger in River Plate’s Super classic defeat on Sunday – and the new, with Alexis Mac Allister likely to start in midfield and some of Argentina’s teenage expatriate contingent in with a chance to fill in on the bench.
Some reports have even suggested that Manchester United youngster Alejandro Garnacho could see some time on the pitch, thereby safeguarding his international future to the detriment of the nation of birth Spain, and also giving the winger his first-ever taste of senior football. To the delight of everyone who has shelled out for a ticket at the Bombonera, meanwhile, Scaloni confirmed that Argentina’s star attraction Messi, itching to show what he is made of after recent disappointment with Paris Saint-Germain, will be there from kick-off : “He is doing well, he trained normally after having flu. He is available to play and let’s hope he plays a good game.”
Messi’s travails in the French capital have led some to posit that the end is near for one of the finest players of any generation to pull on a pair of football boots; and that, for Argentina, the swansong could even come as soon as the end of Qatar 2022. Even if that does not prove the case, at 34 we know it all must end some day, and that makes every game he plays in the Albiceleste, doubly so in front of the nation’s own fans, a remarkable event in and of itself. In the most negative scenario, and if retirement does come at the end of the year, this could even be his final competitive game on Argentine soil: reason enough, if the lure of the Scaloneta and its new faces were not, to pay close attention to Friday’s dead rubber in La Boca.