- Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium is re-opening on 11 November to host Russia-Argentina
- Zenit Saint Petersburg have four players in La Albiceleste squad, more than any other club
- Midfielder Leandro Paredes: "The Luzhniki is an amazing stadium"
Argentina kept their fans on edge until the very last moment of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, only securing their spot in Russia after the final round of fixtures in South America. The spine of La Albiceleste's side that reached the Brazil 2014 Final remains, including Sergio Romero, Javier Mascherano, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, but new head coach Jorge Sampaoli understands that fresh blood is also needed.
Sampaoli’s squad for the November friendlies against Russia and Nigeria, both taking place in the Host Nation of the 2018 World Cup, features six players under the age of 25, four of whom play their club football for Zenit Saint Petersburg. The Russian giants currently have more representatives in the Argentinian national team than any other club.
Making the comparatively short journey from Saint Petersburg to Moscow will be midfielders Matias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes and Emiliano Rigoni, as well as defender Emanuel Mammana, who received a late call-up in place of the injured Gabriel Mercado of Sevilla.
"It’s a source of pride for us," Paredes, arguably the most well-known of the quartet after a couple of seasons starring for Roma in Italy, told FIFA.com. "The fact we got these call-ups mean we’re doing something right. We’re all fairly young and understand we can still develop. We’d like to think that Zenit players will be representing Argentina regularly in the future."
Paredes was a second-half substitute during the crucial match against Ecuador back in October, helping his team-mates see out the 3-1 victory.
"We found it tough in qualifying. Our spot at the World Cup was in question right until the final match. Thank God, we managed to hold on for an incredibly important victory in that fixture; it made things a lot easier for everyone. I felt calm during the game. I tried not to panic and play as well as I could."
La Albiceleste have played six matches with Sampaoli at the helm, winning three and, thus far, avoiding defeat.
"You have to give your all in every training session with Sampaoli, as if you’re stepping out onto the pitch for the final time,” the Zenit midfielder said.
Many fans view most of the players in Argentina’s squad as the supporting cast to Lionel Messi, whose hat-trick against Ecuador kept his country’s World Cup dreams alive. Far from taking offence, Paredes does not see anything wrong in this.
"Of course, everyone only talks about Messi," said Paredes. "I should think this would be the case, as he’s the best player in the world! It’s a huge bonus for Argentina that he plays for us. We understand this perfectly well and we appreciate it.
"How is Messi better than Ronaldo? They are both spectacular players, but in my opinion Leo is better. They have different physical capabilities. Thanks to Messi’s size and technical ability, he’s able to deal with situations that Cristiano would find difficult. When Leo is surrounded by four or five markers, he’ll probably find a way out without losing the ball."
Messi & Co naturally have plenty of questions for their compatriots from Zenit about the host country for next year’s World Cup.
"They ask us how we’re finding things here and how we’ve settled in. It goes without saying that most of the questions are about the weather and if it’s cold. We’re the only guys in the national team who play so far to the north. We don’t speak about the World Cup just yet; there’s still too long to go until it starts."
There is an added element of interest to the Russia-Argentina match on 11 November, as the flagship venue of Russia 2018, the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, is re-opening for the occasion after renovation.
"The Luzhniki is an amazing stadium," Paredes said. "It’s looking modern and beautiful after its reconstruction, but I believe our stadium in Saint Petersburg is as good. I’m sure the World Cup in Russia will be wonderful and our home ground will be one of the showpiece arenas."