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.
“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.
“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.