By Kris Voakes in Sao Paulo
It was not just the ardent Argentina fans who greeted the sight of Maxi Rodriguez training in the apparent first XI on Monday with a sigh of disappointment. Not that it was a slight on the midfielder, per se.
As is the custom, coach Alejandro Sabella used the chance to train on the Arena Corinthians pitch 24 hours before his side meet Switzerland in the World Cup Round of 16 as an opportunity to give his favoured starting line-up some valuable time together.
But the prospect of Rodriguez rather than Ezequiel Lavezzi replacing the injured Sergio Aguero would come as a surprise and a letdown to the Argentine public.
Whether Sabella was employing a touch of kidology remains unclear, as Lavezzi was part of a lengthy post-session debrief along with Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago and Angel di Maria, who have all played the majority of the tournament together so far.
Some Argentine journalists have suggested that 'El Pocho' may be left out to nurse a slight knock, but he would certainly start if his coach really wanted him to.
Lavezzi is not just an outstanding and dangerous footballer, but a cult hero in his homeland.
Not only did he became a viral sensation when he sprayed Sabella with water during a break in play in Argentina’s last Group F fixture against Nigeria, but he has been making waves all over social media for his sex appeal in recent times too.
Such is his reputation for stripping down to the waist – whether it be in goal celebrations, at full-time, or in various photos posted online – a Facebook campaign has been set up by admirers petitioning for the former Napoli star to appear in all national team games without a shirt.
“We call for Fifa to make it an official statute that Ezequiel Lavezzi plays every game shirtless for our visual pleasure, profiting on the motivation to encourage the team in any circumstances,” proposes the webpage, which has drawn over 350,000 likes in a matter of weeks.
But even disregarding the non-sporting reasons for his inclusion, Sabella’s hesitation over nailing his colours to Lavezzi’s mast will come as a cause for concern to the player. There is a sense that Sabella just does not fancy the Paris Saint-Germain star.
Lavezzi will at least be buoyed by the review his national team coach gave of him during Monday’s press conference, when Sabella waxed lyrical about his No.22’s worth both on and off the pitch.
“If Lavezzi plays, he can play in two positions, either as a striker or on the left or right wing. So we have two systems from one player,” lauded the 59-year-old.
“We are playing at a World Cup, and we left Argentina many weeks ago. Thankfully, the players have had the chance to see their families, and sometimes being together as a team is not easy but this time it has been great.
“Players like Lavezzi are important for keeping the players happy. He is a great player, and even when he hasn’t been in the starting line-up he is always keeping a smile on people’s faces.”
But the apparent beating heart of the group and jack-of-all-trades forward has been left to sit and watch for much of the finals so far, with just 65 minutes from two substitute appearances to his name.
If he does get the nod to face Switzerland, it could prove to be a huge moment in Lavezzi’s international career, with the the two-time Ligue 1 title winner facing a sliding doors moment for his international career on Tuesday. Will he or won't he?
A successful appearance in Sao Paulo could tee him up for a key role in a side challenging to win the World Cup, whereas a poor showing may see him fall well down the pecking order even before Aguero returns to fitness.
As for complete omission in favour of Maxi Rodriguez, nothing could make Lavezzi feel more unloved in a country where he is otherwise looked upon so fondly.
It’s decision time for Sabella and a moment of truth for Argentina’s favourite substitute.