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Does Higuain really risk missing out on the 2018 World Cup?

After the almost unbearable anguish of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Argentina can finally breath easily. Victory over Ecuador in the final game of the arduous CONMEBOL competition sealed passage to Russia, and this week the Albiceleste gain a sneak preview of next year’s finals with two friendlies on Russian soil against the hosts and Nigeria.

But while Jorge Sampaoli’s men may feel the pressure has been lifted, albeit temporarily, the same cannot be said for Gonzalo Higuain. The Juventus striker was once more left out of Sampaoli’s plans and must be wondering if his dream of making a third World Cup finals may have already ended. Could Argentina really leave a player of Pipita’s quality and track record at home?

In his short time to date as Argentina coach Sampaoli has indeed given mixed signals over Higuain. He was included in the first Sampaoli call-up to take on Brazil and Singapore back in June and started that first match, in what was widely considered at the time to be the trainer’s strongest line-up available. But in the subsequent squads for Argentina’s final four qualifiers he was a notable absentee, with Mauro Icardi and Dario Benedetto preferred up front. Sergio Aguero, too, would have been in line to play against Peru and Ecuador were it not for a car accident sustained while on leave in Amsterdam.

Publicly, Sampaoli has never written off a man who with 31 international goals sits behind only Lionel Messi and Aguero in the current squad. “I have him in mind and I know what he can do,” he told reporters in October when asked to explain Higuain’s exclusion from these friendlies.

Gonzalo Higuain Brasil Argentina Friendlies 09062017Gonzalo Higuain Argentina

“He is a player who due to his place amongst football’s elite is extremely close to us. It is not necessary to go over his current situation with him, we do not have to test anything. It will be our decision whether he goes or not to the World Cup.” Back in August Higuain met with Sampaoli and assistant Sebastian Beccacese during a tour of Europe, where the trio sat down and discussed his performance against Brazil and Singapore and held a tactical discussion including directions on playing with his back to goal and his movement in the area.

One of the few things that is clear is that there is no personal rift between coach and player that can explain his being overlooked; all suggestions indicate that they enjoy a warm personal relationship.

While that is perhaps reassuring to Higuain, who has been boosted in recent weeks by a welcome return to form after a nightmare start to the season where he looked overweight and sluggish, it does not necessarily bring him any closer to a recall. No matter how plausible Sampaoli’s explanations are, the bare fact remains that of all of his possible World Cup starters Pipita is the only man whose apparent lack of need to be tested keeps him out in the cold.

There is no doubt that Sampaoli’s ambitions with the national team far outspan merely a solid performance at the World Cup. An obsessive scholar of the game and tactical perfectionist, the former Chile and Sevilla man is desperate to leave his own strategic stamp on the Albiceleste, a style that filters through no matter who the opposition may be. To implement his favoured high-pressing, dynamic game certain key elements still need to be found and nurtured; mobile full-backs, defenders adept at playing the ball out at all times, a true box-to-box midfielder – and, crucially, a centre-forward whose role on the pitch goes far beyond the act of scoring goals.

Higuain PS

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“We need a forward who besides goals also has the ability to assist,” the coach explained in August when asked why Icardi and not Higuain would be leading the line. Sampaoli’s weakness for the Inter striker, the archetype of what he looks for in a ‘No. 9’ is evident. Conditioned perhaps by years of giving his every last fibre for an ailing Nerazzurri, the youngster made virtue out of necessity and was moulded by his own team’s weakness into a far more complete striker, able to operate in and outside the penalty area. While things have not quite fallen his way so far in international colours, Icardi’s future is huge – and Sampaoli’s is right to persist with him.

Aguero, too, while no new face in Albiceleste circles, appears to have redeemed himself in the coach’s eyes after being dropped for his first squad. Much of what Sampaoli has asked of the Manchester City star has been repeated in his ear by Pep, making the Aguero of 2017 vintage far more than a goal poacher. The new, improved Kun this year in the Premier League is creating chances for others, attacking empty spaces with voracity and forcing himself into the game as a linkman while losing none of his potency in front of the net.

The onus, then, is on Higuain to show that he is more than just a goalscorer. In Paulo Dybala he has the perfect foil to expand his game at Juve, but he has little time to convince Sampaoli he can be that man. Little time, too, and perhaps even less opportunity to finally banish those demons that have dogged him in major finals for Argentina, and hinted at yet again in his no-show for the Old Lady in this year’s Champions League blow-out at the hands of Real Madrid. Pipita’s Argentina may not be over, but he has an uphill task to show a sceptical Albiceleste he can be the player to lead them to World Cup glory.

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Messi denies influencing Argentina squad selection

Claims that Lionel Messi exerts an influence on Argentina’s squad selection have been dismissed by the star attacker as a “total lie”. 

Messi’s brilliant hat-trick in Argentina’s World Cup qualifier against Ecuador last month ensured his side will be at the finals in Russia next year.

Argentina 8/1 to win the World Cup

Despite his importance on the pitch, the Barcelona forward has been subject to speculation suggesting he holds too much influence over who plays for Argentina.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi, who is married to the ex-wife of Messi’s friend Maxi Lopez, had not been selected since 2013 before returning to the group under Jorge Sampaoli.

But Messi is adamant he has never held any sway over the coach’s decisions. 

“It was said that I didn’t want Icardi coming to the national team, but I’ve never decided if a player comes or not,” Messi said in an interview with TyC Sports.

“Now it’s coming out that all that was said was a lie. I never said I didn’t want Icardi in the national team, nor did I make anyone leave other players out.

“Telling great players that they’re only playing because they’re Messi’s friend is disrespectful — and it’s also a total lie because I don’t run the national team.”

While Icardi has been called up by Sampaoli, Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain has been omitted from recent squads, despite his prolific form in Serie A.

And Messi defended Higuain against criticism that he has failed to perform for Argentina in key matches, such as their 2014 World Cup final loss to Germany and back-to-back Copa America showpiece defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016, both of which were settled on penalties after scoreless draws.

“The truth is that it hurts — everything that was said at this time,” Messi said. “We played the final of a World Cup, two Copa America finals, at least two of the three [we] deserved to win.

“We did not win — and we all went through that. [Higuain] had the situations he had and they took it against him, but we are used to being told atrocities about us.

“We all had hard times, beyond what was achieved. There was a lot of hard blows to this group. I talk to everyone, we have a great relationship, we have played together for many years and we know each other.”

 

A post shared by Leo Messi (@leomessi) on

Messi also denied having a problem with Higuain’s Juve team-mate Paulo Dybala, who has said he finds it hard to play with the 30-year-old, as they occupy similar positions on the pitch.

“There’s nothing to clarify with Dybala,” Messi said. “I knew what he meant from the first moment.”

Should Argentina ultimately lift the trophy in Russia, Messi has vowed to complete a 65-kilometre pilgrimage on foot — starting in his hometown of Rosario.

“If we win the World Cup, I promise to walk from Rosario to San Nicolas,” he said.

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But Messi does not consider the Albiceleste to be favourites next summer, highlighting Spain as one powerhouse he’d particularly like to avoid.

He told ESPN: “Spain, Brazil, Germany and France are the teams with the best image at the moment. I think they are the favourites.

“I would not like to face Spain in the group. I would prefer to avoid them because of what their team represents, for what they have [in terms of talent]. They’d be a very difficult opponent.”

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Juventus 2 Benevento 1: Second-half comeback saves champions’ blushes

Goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Juan Cuadrado earned Juventus the points after Benevento led for almost an hour in Turin.

Juventus survived a scare with an underwhelming 2-1 home win over Serie A’s bottom side Benevento sending them up to second on Sunday.

The reigning champions took their opportunity to leapfrog Inter, who drew 1-1 with Torino earlier in the day, as Gonzalo Higuain and Juan Cuadrado denied the determined visitors their first top-flight points.

Benevento have now lost all 12 of their league games this season, but can take heart from giving the Bianconeri real difficulties at Allianz Stadium.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side even took an unlikely first-half lead when Amato Ciciretti’s free-kick left Wojciech Szczesny, in for the rested Gianluigi Buffon, rooted to the spot.

Although that was the visitors’ only shot of the opening period, it took Massimiliano Allegri’s men – wearing a special 120th anniversary kit – until the 57th minute to forge a breakthrough as Higuain coolly dispatched his fifth goal in four matches in all competitions.

Cuadrado then clinched the points with a close-range header to the relief of the home supporters, Juve now trailing Serie A leaders Napoli by only a point after their 0-0 draw at Chievo.

A dazzling early Douglas Costa dash down the left flank almost led to the opener as his low cross was parried awkwardly against the near post by Alberto Brignoli.

And Costa soon came close again – this time without the aid of the goalkeeper – rattling a left-footed strike against the angle of the upright and crossbar.

But the goal instead came at the other end. Benevento captain Ciciretti curled a free-kick around the wall and beyond the idle Szczesny, celebrating maniacally as the Allianz Stadium fell to a stunned silence.

Cuadrado should have drawn Juventus level when he ran through from Paulo Dybala’s pass, but the Colombian blazed his effort over the top.

Brignoli then brilliantly stood tall to block from Dybala after he shimmied through the visiting back line, before the same man somehow shot wide when Higuain teed up a clear opening.

The keeper saved again from a Costa free-kick as Benevento incredibly survived the onslaught to take their lead into half-time, with Juve initially continuing to struggle after the restart.

However, the first big opportunity of the second half fell Higuain’s way and he made no mistake, sweeping a pinpoint finish into the top-right corner from Blaise Matuidi’s knockdown.

Brignoli persisted with his brave resistance as he denied Cuadrado’s effort and then scrambled across his goal line to dive on Higuain’s trundling rebound, before Matuidi nodded over.

But the turnaround was complete in the 65th minute, with Cuadrado meeting Alex Sandro’s deep cross with a firm downward header that bounced up past Brignoli.

Danilo Cataldi’s wonderful dipping effort almost restored parity, but that represented the extent of Benevento’s attacking intent as only a smart Brignoli stop kept Dybala’s replacement Rodrigo Bentancur from adding a late third.

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Argentina omit Higuain again as Perotti recalled from international wilderness

Juventus star Gonzalo Higuain has been left out of Argentina’s squad yet again by Jorge Sampaoli, but Roma winger Diego Perotti has been recalled from the international wilderness.

Argentina face friendly matches against Russia and Nigeria this month as they begin preparations for next year’s World Cup, which they only progressed to thanks to a Lionel Messi inspired victory over Ecuador in their final qualifier.

Higuain has been left out again despite strong form at club level, scoring four goals in his last three matches for Juventus.

Higuain 33/1 to be CL top scorer

The 29-year-old played 45 minutes in Sampaoli’s first match in charge against Brazil in September, but he has not been named in a squad since.

Perotti has fought his way back into contention, though, with the Roma forward receiving his first call up since June 2011.

He made his international debut under Diego Maradona in November 2009 after breaking through as a talented youngster at Sevilla, but injuries and inconsistency wreaked havoc on him in the three years that followed his last inclusion.

Boca Juniors winger Cristian Pavon has been selected for the first time, with the 21-year-old enjoying a fine start to the Argentinian Primera Division season.

Squad in full:

Goalkeepers: Sergio Romero (Manchester United), Nahuel Guzman (Tigres), Agustin Marchesin (Club America)

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Defenders: Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Federico Fazio (Roma), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), German Pezzella (Fiorentina), Emiliano Insua (Stuttgart)

Midfielders: Ever Banega (Sevilla), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Marcos Acuna (Sporting CP), Matias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes, Emiliano Rigoni (all Zenit St Petersburg), Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta), Perotti (Roma)

Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Mauro Icardi (Inter), Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Dario Benedetto, Cristian Pavon (both Boca Juniors).

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Sergio Ramos is a spoilt little child and the winners & losers of the Champions League


WINNER: GONZALO HIGUAIN


Gonzalo Higuain Juventus Champions League

Just over a week ago, Gonzalo Higuain was under immense pressure. He had endured a very difficult start to the season for Juventus, scoring just four goals in the opening 12 matches in all competitions. This was despite the Bianconeri making their best goalscoring start to a campaign for over half a century.

Higuain looked slow, out of shape and was even dropped by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli ahead of their do-or-die World Cup qualifiers in September and October. Some critics even started to question whether, with the ex-Real Madrid man set to turn 30 next month, we were starting to witness the decline of ‘Pipita’.

Real Madrid 11/2 to win the UCL

However, Higuain is now well and truly back. In the space of just six days and three games, he has rattled home four goals. A characteristically clinical double versus AC Milan on Saturday night saw Juventus defeat their big-spending rivals 2-0 at San Siro. Then, on Tuesday, the striker scored one of the most important goals of his Juve career so far.

Trailing 1-0 against Sporting with 11 minutes to go in Portugal, the Champions League finalists were in big trouble. A defeat by that scoreline would have seen Juve fall to third position in Group D with just two games remaining, behind Sporting on head-to-head record and with group leaders Barcelona to play next.

Higuain received a pass from Juan Cuadrado and brilliantly dinked the ball over onrushing goalkeeper Rui Patricio to earn Juve a point that will probably prove to be the difference between qualification and elimination.

“Juventus paid €90 million for nights like these,” Sporting coach Jorge Jesus rightly sighed after the game.

Carlo Garganese


WINNER: EUSEBIO DI FRANCESCO


Eusebio Di Francesco Antonio Conte Roma Chelsea

After Roma had fortuitously earned a 0-0 draw at home to Atletico Madrid on matchday one, the knives were already out for new coach Eusebio Di Francesco.

At the end of a game in which the hosts had managed just one shot on target, boos rang out around the Stadio Olimpico, while Edin Dzeko publicly complained about how isolated he was now feeling in attack, having scored freely under previous boss Luciano Spalletti.

There were even reports that owner James Pallotta was “not satisfied” with the team’s tactics. It had been Di Francesco’s first taste of Champions League football and there were suggestions that the former Sassuolo coach was out of his depth.

How quickly things change!

After Tuesday’s resounding 3-0 victory over Chelsea, Roma sit top of Group C, one point ahead of the Blues and, more significantly, five clear of Atletico with just two rounds remaining. Veteran midfielder Daniele De Rossi was in no doubt as to who was responsible for the Giallorossi’s remarkable turnaround.

“This coach has changed the way we attack the opponents and it’s obvious to see,” the captain enthused. “We are aggressive against all the opponents, even sides who in previous years we might’ve feared or sat back to invite forward.”

Far from being a defensive coach, Di Francesco has rid Roma of their long-held inferiority complex against the biggest and best sides in Europe. They were the better side in their 3-3 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but were punished for poor defending, so the coach went to work on his defence, resulting in three consecutive 1-0 wins in Serie A, and another shutout in Tuesday’s return clash with the Blues.

Di Francesco declared afterwards, “I believe in myself and the work I do.” Now everyone else at Roma does too.

Mark Doyle


WINNERS: QARABAG


Gurban Gurbanov Qarabag

It was nearly 2am in Baku when the full-time whistle blew in Qarabag’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano but the late hour didn’t dissuade the club’s fans from taking to the streets to celebrate a historic result.

In the Spanish capital, meanwhile, captain Rashad Sadygov was overcome with emotion. “I do not know what to say right now,” he enthused. “I need time to take it in.”

It was hardly surprising. Just two weeks after stunning the footballing world by holding Atletico to a 0-0 draw in Baku, Qarabag, the Champions League rookies had taken another point off a side that reached the final in 2014 and 2016.

They had again done so with 10 men, with Pedro Henrique having been sent off with 32 minutes to play, but this time they had also scored, with Michel having put them ahead just before the break. In the end, they were forced to ‘settle’ for a draw, which is in itself a remarkable show of just how far Qarabag have come just since the start of their first ever appearance in the Champions League group stage.

In their opening fixture in Group C, they were routed 6-0 by Chelsea. Since then, they suffered a narrow 2-1 loss to Roma before recording back-to-back draws with Atletico. As a result, they now can’t wait to meet the Premier League champions again, this time in Baku on November 22.

“We’re enjoying the Champions League so much,” coach Gurban Gurbanov admitted. “We’re learning a lot. This draw will help us so much and we’ll be respected playing games like these. We’ve got two points but want to try and get more.”

Antonio Conte & Co have been warned!

Mark Doyle


LOSERS: BENFICA


Raul Jimenez Benfica

That Benfica are still mathematically capable of qualifying for the knockout stage says everything about the dire quality of Group A, as the Portuguese outfit have lost all four of their games.

However, with Manchester United sweeping all before them and matches to come against Basel and CSKA Moscow – both of whom have six points – the Eagles could, in theory, still progress to the last 16.

Coach Rui Vitoria stated after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at Old Trafford, “With two wins we could continue in the Champions League, go to Europa League or go nowhere.” The chances are, they’re going nowhere.

Indeed, Benfica have scored just once so far, conceding 10 times in the process, and it would not be a surprise if they failed to add to their goals tally, given they didn’t even manage a shot on target in two of their four outings thus far.

Their performance in Manchester was certainly better than their blunt showing at the Estado da Luz a fortnight ago but they still never looked remotely capable of claiming a positive result and this is now a historically bad campaign for the two-time European Cup winners, who have never before lost their opening four group games in the Champions League.

Benfica’s travelling supporters were once again a credit to their club at Old Trafford but, given their side also currently trail Porto by five points after 10 rounds of the Primeira Liga, it could be a very long and frustrating season for the fans.

Mark Doyle


LOSER: SERGIO RAMOS


Dele Alli Tottenham Real

There are many reasons for Real Madrid’s crisis – from the lack of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to coach Zinedine Zidane’s struggle to give his team an identity. However, perhaps the biggest individual concern right now for the Blancos is the dreadful form of Sergio Ramos.

The 31-year-old endured a horror show on Wednesday night in the 3-1 loss to Tottenham at Wembley. He was culpable on all of Spurs’ goals, and the way he backed off as Dele Alli ran at him for the Englishman’s second strike was amateurish.

Ramos is supposed to be Madrid’s leader but he continues to behave like a spoilt little child, as evidenced by his brainless booking late in the game.

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Madrid have now conceded five goals in their last two outings, and kept just two clean sheets in their previous 10 matches between La Liga and the Champions League. There is no one more responsible for this poor record than Ramos.

After the loss against Tottenham, he urged everyone to “remain calm”, but Ramos needs to wake up fast.

Carlo Garganese

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