International Friendly: Argentina vs Italy – Lineups, Preview and Prediction
A clash fitting for the World Cup knockout stages, but how will Italy react against Messi’s Argentina after failing to qualify for the finals?
19:45 GMT, Friday 23rd March, Etihad Stadium (Manchester, England)
Argentina vs Italy. A heavyweight clash. Any other year, this would be the highlight of the international break, but the gloss has been taken off with Italy not qualifying for the World Cup finals this summer.
It’s the first time in 60 years the Azzurri will not be at the World Cup, after a shock playoff loss to Sweden back in November. With no manager employed to replace the fired Gian Piero Ventura, and the president of the Italian Football Federation standing down, they are in turmoil.
Argentina have qualified for Russia, but boy, did they have to work for it.
Three draws on the trot in qualifying meant La Albiceleste had to defeat Ecuador in the final round of fixtures to guarantee a play-off spot. Lionel Messi then single-handedly took his country to the World Cup, and other fixtures fell in their favour, securing automatic qualification.
A wounded Italy could be the perfect warm-up opponents as Argentina plot to achieve World Cup glory for the first time in over 30 years.
Last time out
Argentina 2-4 Nigeria (International friendly)
Umm, this surprised a few didn’t it? Played in Krasnodar, Russia a Messi-less Argentina succumbed to an electric Nigeria 4-2.
After going 2-0 up through an Ever Banega free-kick and a Sergio Aguero tap-in, it looked as if a rout was on the cards.
Kelechi Iheanacho had other ideas, bending in a set-piece of his own and then making room for Alex Iwobi to pull the game level.
With their tales up, Nigeria turned on the intensity and a counter-attack found its way to Bryne Idowu to side-foot home. Arsenal wide man Iwobi sealed the result with 20 minutes to play, selling Javier Mascherano down the river with a nutmeg and cool finish.
No Messi, no party for Argentina it seems.
Italy 0-0 Sweden (World Cup qualification second leg)
Painful, painful, painful for the Azzurri. Italy fell to Sweden 1-0 in the away leg, but they would still have backed their ability to get the job done on home turf.
The home side had the chance to level the aggregate score in the first half, but Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen was on hand to deny them.
As the second period ticked on, the Swedes sat deeper and deeper with Italy lobbing balls into the box.
Ventura’s men were out of ideas, the experienced Daniele De Rossi then snapped at the coaching staff when he, a defensive midfielder, was asked to warm up. Sweden deserved the aggregate victory, leaving the powers that be at Italian football scratching their heads.
Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli is without Cristian Ansaldi, Lautaro Acosta and Fernando Gago against Italy.
It shouldn’t affect his thinking too much, but the issue may be his niche 3-3-3-1-1 formation. It was Argentina’s downfall against Nigeria, with the defence all over the place as the Super Eagles countered.
Sampaoli looks set to stick with the system, with no room in the squad for attackers Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi.
Italy are without the injured Giorgio Chiellini, but how they recover from the retirements of Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi will be a tough task. Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon also announced their intent to step down from the international scene, so it could be a very different Italy that we see after the summer.
Argentina’s ‘pro-Messi’ formation should play into the hands of the Azzuri who have been the kings of the five of the back system for over a decade.
Who caretaker boss Luigi Di Biagio could select is a lottery however, but you would imagine he will give the younger players a chance to impress.
Key battle: Lionel Messi (Argentina) vs Angelo Ogbonna (Italy)
With no Giorgio Chiellini, it looks as if West Ham centre back Angelo Ogbonna will be placed in the Lionel Messi firing line.
Ogbonna cannot be high on confidence after his club’s recent struggles and you fear for the 29-year-old if he has to face up against Messi.
Argentina’s defeat to Nigeria highlights their problems in Messi’s absence, and with the strange formation designed to free up as much space for the Barcelona man as possible, expect him to run riot against an Italian team who could be disinterested.
Communication in defence
Argentina’s defence was in disarray against Nigeria. Javier Mascherano, now playing in China, is not the player he was, and he now faces a challenge to be part of the squad for the World Cup let alone the starting lineup.
In a back three shielded by three central midfielders, they must pass off attackers to one another, especially in wide areas. Those six players must communicate clearly and execute perfectly to deny the opposition. Italy will produce runners from midfield and wide areas, so it will be good test for the Argentines.
Attract the opponent
Whenever Lionel Messi is on the ball, expect at least two Italian defenders to be on him. It is therefore the responsibility for Messi’s teammates to either find space to hurt the opposition or pick up dangerous areas to free up room for the number 10.
Too often do Argentina rely on Messi given the quality elsewhere in their side.
Sergio Aguero has scored just three times since September 2015, Gonzalo Higuain hasn’t found the net from October 2016 and Angel Di Maria’s only goal last year came against Singapore.
With Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala not in the squad, this dangerous trio can no longer rely on their reputations to take them to Russia.
Azzurri’s point to prove
After a flat 180 minutes against Sweden, Italy need to show they are still a quality side.
Antonio Conte could be their next manager, but they need to show any potential boss they are worth taking on, and there is enough talent to take them to, and challenge at, future tournaments.
In a neutral venue the pressure is off, and you could see Italy upsetting the odds if they play with the heart that has taken them deep into tournaments before.
Prediction: Argentina 2-0 Italy
As much Argentina are inconsistent, you will still expect them to defeat a managerless Italy. If Lionel Messi plays, you can’t see a much-changed Italian side stopping him. There is a case, however, the Argentine defence is even more vulnerable than their Italian opponents.
Can Argentina win the World Cup? Let us know in the comments section below?