After presiding over two friendlies, Jorge Sampaoli makes his FIFA World Cup™ qualifying debut as Argentina coach on Thursday. It will be a baptism of fire, too. With La Albiceleste lying fifth in the table and in need of points if they are to claim one of the four direct tickets to Russia 2018, he will take his side on a perilous trip to Uruguay.

Sampaoli took up the post on 31 May, leaving him with just a few days to work with his players before the June friendlies against Brazil and Singapore. Since then his only contact with them has come on a trip he made to Europe and in face-to-face meetings in Buenos Aires.

Given the lack of time available to him and the delicate position Argentina find themselves in, Sampaoli could have been forgiven for keeping changes to a minimum in a squad that has remained largely untampered with in recent years. Yet, in laying out his plans for the crucial double header against the Uruguayans and Venezuela, he has decided to make a break with the past.

In goal
That said, continuity is the name of the game between the posts, with Sergio Romero, Nahuel Guzman and Geronimo Rulli the three men selected. Romero and Guzman played in the June friendlies, though the Manchester United keeper, who has been his country’s first choice since 2009, will retain the No1 jersey.

Defence
Sampaoli’s preference is for a three-man defence, last used on a regular basis in the Marcelo Bielsa era (1998-2004), though he may choose to go with four at the back, in which case the biggest change would come with the deployment, or not, of Javier Mascherano.

Though Mascherano has won all 136 of his caps in midfield since his international debut in 2003, Sampaoli sees him as a defender only, naming him as such in his official squad list. For the first time since 2006, however, the Barcelona man is not guaranteed a starting place.

Though Nicolas Otamendi and Gabriel Mercado are Albiceleste regulars, Sampaoli is looking to renew the back-line. As well as handing Federico Fazio (3 caps) and Nicolas Pareja (1 cap) their first call-ups since 2014 and 2011 respectively, he has also drafted in the similarly inexperienced Javier Pinola and sprung a surprise with the inclusion Fabricio Bustos, a 21-year-old attack-minded right-back who has played just 25 games in the Argentinian first division.

Midfield
Sampaoli firmly believes that the midfield defines the style of a team, and in his eyes that means manning it with creative players who can hurt defences with their first-time passing. It is that train of thought that lies behind his decision to shift Mascherano.

Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia both played against Brazil, though the Sevilla man will miss the Uruguay match through suspension. Into the reckoning have come Guido Pizarro, who has featured in the squad in the last year but without being in genuine contention for a starting place, and the relatively untested Leandro Paredes, who won his first cap under Sampaoli against Singapore.

Out of the side since the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Javier Pastore owes his return to a comment the new coach made a month ago: “We’ll need players who can think when we play the ‘hysteria match’ (the visit to Montevideo).”

Angel Di Maria is still very much in Sampaoli’s plans, as is Lautaro Acosta, a veteran of the side who won the U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007 but has yet to establish himself at full international level. The Lanus left winger may find himself being deployed on the right side of midfield.

Attack
Up front, Sampaoli’s overriding concern is to give Lionel Messi the support he needs, which has prompted him to make another big decision: bring Mauro Icardi in for Gonzalo Higuain.

Prior to the coach’s arrival, the Inter captain’s international career amounted to a seven-minute appearance from the bench against Uruguay in 2013. When Argentina step out at the Centenario, however, Icardi has every chance of being the tip of a 3-4-2-1 formation.

Heavily criticised for his wayward finishing in the last three major finals Argentina have played, Higuain did not even make the list.

Messi and Paulo Dybala will slot in behind Icardi. Waiting for their chance to impress are the hugely experienced Sergio Aguero and two other new faces in Joaquin Correa, an attacking midfielder who Sampaoli deployed as a front man in his stint at Sevilla, and Boca Juniors striker Dario Benedetto.

 

⚽️

A post shared by Mauro Icardi (@mauroicardi) on