Argentina will begin their World Cup qualifying campaign against Ecuador on Thursday without Lionel Messi, but with a red-hot Sergio Agüero and a new generation of forward talent ready to pick up the considerable slack. Messi is sidelined with a knee injury suffered with Barcelona last month and will definitely miss Argentina’s first two qualifiers, against Ecuador and then at Paraguay next Tuesday.
It is far from an ideal scenario for coach Gerardo Martino as he seeks to banish the memory of yet another heartbreaking failure at a major tournament. Without a senior international title since 1993, Argentina followed up their World Cup final defeat to Germany in 2014 with a penalty-shootout loss to Chile in this summer’s climax of the Copa America.
However, the former Barcelona coach can still call upon a cast of attacking talent that would be the envy of almost every other nation in the world. The group will be led by Agüero, who warmed up for the start of qualifying by hitting five goals for Manchester City in their 6-1 destruction of Newcastle United on Saturday. Not only will Agüero be expected to provide the attacking inspiration in Messi’s absence, but he will also wear the captain’s famed No. 10 shirt, something which he admits he isn’t entirely comfortable with.
“I spoke to the kitman and he told me it is obligatory - someone has to use it because the numbers go from 1 to 23,”Aguero told Manchester City’s official website.
“I wore it for the first time against Bosnia, in a friendly in the United States, and Leo said: 'When I am not around, Kun has to use it.' Then he started to send me messages: 'Are you going to wear it? You're not going to chicken out?'
“Now every time he is absent it is up to me to wear it. I am happy to pull on the shirt, but it obviously belongs to him.”
As well as Agüero, Argentina’s attacking options include Carlos Tevez, who has scored eight goals in 13 games since returning to Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors this summer. But there will be no Gonzalo Higuaín. Despite being in fine form for Napoli, Martino has elected to leave out the 27-year-old, instead deciding to take a look at new Juventus signing Paulo Dybala for the first time. After scoring in his debut, a 7-0 rout of Bolivia in a friendly last month, 20-year-old Atlético Madrid forward Ángel Correa earns another call up, as well.
The task of devising a plan to stop them falls upon Argentine-born Gustavo Quinteros. The 50-year-old represented Bolivia at international level and also coached their national team between 2010 and 2012. Earlier this year he was handed the reins of Ecuador, but his first real test failed to go to plan when his side was dumped out of the group stage of the Copa America after a surprise defeat to Bolivia.
As he prepares to try and lead Ecuador to their fourth World Cup in the last five editions, Quinteros has been hampered by a ruptured Achilles tendon that has meant him taking training in a mobility scooter. Far more of a concern, though, will be the knee injury that sidelines West Ham United striker Enner Valencia. In his absence, the responsibility to get the goals will fall upon Felipe Caicedo. Now at Espanyol, the 27-year-old previously had a spell at Manchester City, which ended the same summer that Agüero arrived.
Kickoff time: 8 p.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports en Español
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect