Argentina coach Gerardo Martino has welcomed the return of Lionel Messi to the squad ahead of Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Chile in Santiago. Messi was absent for the first four of Argentina’s qualifiers last year because of an injury picked up at Barcelona.
And his country has struggled without him, taking just two points from their first three matches before picking up a much-needed 1-0 win in Colombia last time out. Still, Argentina currently sit in sixth place in the 10-team South America qualifying table, with only the top four securing a berth in Russia in 2018 and the fifth place team going into a playoff.
“Messi’s presence is a relief for me and everyone,” Martino said, reports the Buenos Aires Herald. “We needed him in the defeat to Ecuador and in the good match against Colombia, It’s important to win both games so we place ourselves among the national teams qualifying for the World Cup. Today, Argentina is out of Russia 2018 in the standings.”
With Messi now back, Martino, despite the absence of Juventus’ Paulo Dybala, has a major selection headache in attack. As well as the Barcelona star, he has Sergio Agüero available for the first time since the opening qualifier against Ecuador and Gonzalo Higuaín , who has fired 29 goals in Serie A for Napoli so far this season. Agüero is expected to get the nod alongside Messi and Paris Saint-Germain’s Ángel di María , but Martino admits it is not an easy choice.
“It’s clear that whoever plays will be an injustice for the other,” he explained. “Agüero and Higuaín are among the five best strikers in the world, but only one can play due to our formation.”
Thursday’s encounter will see Argentina return to the venue of their penalty-shootout defeat to Chile in the final of the 2015 Copa America. But it will be a substantially different Chile that they will be taking on.
The mastermind of their Copa America success, Chile’s first ever international title, Jorge Sampaoli, left his role as coach after a dispute with the newly elected president of the Football Federation of Chile. In his place has come another Argentine-born coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who represented Spain as a player and was most recently coaching Mexican side León.
Pizzi, who has called leading Chile the biggest challenge of his career, inherits a side sitting in fifth place in qualifying following a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay last time out. And he will face his first test as coach without a quartet of experienced players. Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and Jorge Valdivia are all suspended following the bad-tempered contest in Montevideo last November. Meanwhile, Charles Aranguiz is still absent through an injury picked up last summer.
It will now be down to Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez to spearhead the attack, likely supported by Celta Vigo winger Fabián Orellana. Chile’s forwards should be encouraged by Argentina missing Barcelona’s Javier Mascherano and Manchester City center-back Nicolás Otamendi.
Kickoff time: 7:30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports
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