“It’s impossible to teach Messi anything”.
Jorge Sampaoli could only shrug. An interview with TIPS Bladet offered the most succinct précis of his World Cup strategy – get the ball to Leo, and hope for the best.
There were no whiteboards or salt shakers-used-as-chess-pieces here. Why waste time creating a system when an extraterrestrial talent makes it moot?
Sampaoli, after all, will be relying on arguably the weakest Argentina squad in decades. Los Albicelestes are woefully short at goalkeeper, centre-back, and wing-back.
Indeed, only in the forward positions do they look dangerous, with Mauro Icardi excluded from a squad that boasts Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Angel di María.
It is central midfield, though, that will be giving Sampaoli the most headaches. At his best, Ever Banega is a jaunty genius who can glide through games, but an axis with the ageing Javier Mascherano looks porous.
Step forward Giovani Lo Celso.
In all likelihood, the Paris Saint-Germain star will start on the bench in Russia.
He has enjoyed a phenomenal season in France, however, migrating from his position at enganche to become a reliable presence in the middle of the park. Overall, Lo Celso made 33 appearances as a central midfielder, 13 in defensive midfield and only one in the number ten role.
The 22-year-old has acted as a fulcrum throughout the season, scoring in the French Cup final as well as the title-securing win over Monaco, which suggests an aptitude for the biggest games of them all.
Giovani Lo Celso’s Ligue 1 by numbers:
- 91% passing accuracy
- 58 tackles won
- 34 take-ons
- 18 chances created
- 16 interceptions
- 5 assists
- 4 goals
He was present, too, in the damaging Champions League defeat to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
That night, though, he looked horribly exposed in a defensive role, overrun by Los Merengues wily midfielders, which may be the reason to leave him on the bench in the most prolific tournament in world football.
After some impressive performances whilst playing for Rosario Central, Lo Celso was called up to the Argentine U23 Olympic squad, making his debut in August 2016.
Sampaoli has no concerns about Lo Celso, including him in his 23-man-squad after granting his first international cap last November, just over a year after earning recognition in the U23s.
He has just four caps to his name, but will surely add to that total in the summer. Lo Celso’s adaptability will see to that.
His simmering spell at Rosario demonstrated all of his skills at number ten, with a record that boasted an assist every four games. He is a marvellous harvester of space, with a low-centre of gravity and tantalising technique that can find a teammate at the first time of asking.
He is determined too, having fought his way from nothing to become one of the most reliable midfielders under Unai Emery. The Argentine has reinvented himself totally, abandoning some of his offensive instincts to become an adjudicator of the Paris midfield.
So often this year, he has been the man to win the ball, set the tempo and make the difference.
His game is so well-rounded that no immediate technical weaknesses are apparent. The only obvious flaws are physical; Lo Celso is small and slight, an anticipator rather than an agitator.
Against the robust midfields of Iceland and Nigeria, he could struggle to impose himself. Against Croatia, too, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric have the capacity to bypass him altogether, as the latter did in the Champions League.
Nevertheless, it feels like the stage is set for Lo Celso to truly announce himself on the world stage. This is likely to be Messi’s last World Cup, certainly the last we’ll see in his prime – regardless of the end result, Argentina will be looking for a new standard bearer.
In a squad lacking in elite prospects, Lo Celso might just be the man.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Argentina and Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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