No Icardi, half-fit Aguero and off-colour Higuain: Sampaoli has got Argentina's World Cup front line all wrong

Lionel Messi Mauro Icardi Argentina
The Inter star has been consigned to the reserves while the Albiceleste's hopes rest on two players who arrive in Russia with doubts above their heads

Shorn of quality in defence and in the middle of the park, Argentina's hopes of repeating or bettering their run to the 2014 World Cup final hang largely on the team's ability to put the ball in the back of the net. But after the squad for the Russia finals was announced, the omission of goal-getters like Inter star Mauro Icardi leave serious doubts over the Albiceleste's firepower.

Just two out and out strikers feature in the list announced by Jorge Sampaoli on Monday. Sergio Aguero starts in pole position to lead the Argentina attack, a logical move after yet another brilliant season for the all-conquering Manchester City.

His deputy will be Gonzalo Higuain, uneven in form for Juventus over the course of the year and fiercely questioned for his recent Albiceleste performances. Alongside that pair, Lionel Messi and a relieved Paulo Dybala add creative thrust, while Boca starlet Cristian Pavon and Independiente winger Maxi Meza, one of the few players to come out of that 6-1 defeat to Spain with any credit, offer pace and trickery out wide to compensate their inexperience at the top level.

It is by no means an anaemic attack. At their best, all six of those players are capable of hitting the net on a regular basis. But relying on Aguero and Higuain alone is an unnecessary risk – particularly since two players who could add a new dimension to the frontline sit in Sampaoli's reserves.

Aguero has not played competitive football since March, when he sustained a knee injury in training that ended prematurely his City season. While the striker insists that he will be in top condition for Russia - “I'm feeling better every day,” he stated at the start of May – Argentina will nevertheless be wary.

An injury prior to the 2014 finals severely affected his performances in Brazil, and in five outings he failed to score a single goal. Kun is a different, more complete and mature player than four years ago, but he will be under immense pressure to banish those dark memories of the last World Cup and give his best for the national team.

As will Higuain. Perhaps no player in the Albiceleste ranks has been criticised more heavily than Pipita, with fans focusing on his supposed stage fright in the three finals contested with his nation. That underwhelming record in decisive games, however, is the least of his concerns.

One must look back to October 2016 in order to find the last time Higuain managed a goal for Argentina, and another blank against Spain made it seven games without troubling the scorers in international football.

In that context, the refusal to include Icardi – and, to a lesser extent, Racing's Lautaro Martinez, a player who has been watched on numerous occasions by Sampaoli and who, with 14 goals in 2018 is outscored only by Messi and Aguero – is baffling.

Not even 29 goals in 33 Serie A matches, a phenomenal strike-rate, managed to convince Sampaoli that Icardi was worthy of a place among the 23 who will go to Russia. Former Argentina star Hernan Crespo sees a veto on the part of Messi, close friends with Icardi's sworn enemy Maxi Lopez, behind the decision.

Mauro Icardi Lionel Messi magic circle Hernan Crespo

“The national team is now made up of a magic circle, do you understand me? Icardi is not part of the circle and therefore, unfortunately, he will not go to the World Cup in Russia. This is my opinion,” Crespo said to Gazzetta dello Sport.

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“The team needs a striker like him, but [Jorge] Sampaoli and Messi think otherwise.” It is a tempting conspiracy theory, but one not borne out by the fact that under Sampaoli Icardi has had chances to prove himself that were not capitalised upon, as well as his place in the 35-man squad as a reserve.

Crespo, however, is right about one thing. “In the penalty area, no other player in the world is as good as him. When he gets the ball, he’s deadly,” the ex-Parma and Inter star added. Icardi offers a mobility and verve in the box that few other Argentina stars offer, and his drive and professionalism in leading a mediocre Inter shows that he has maturity in spades even at the tender age of 25.

That has not been enough to earn him a place alongside Aguero and Higuain. And while those two have a proven track record at the highest level it still represents the most curious decision in Sampaoli's squad. The coach is staking the World Cup and his reputation on one half-fit striker, and another who has bombed for Argentina in recent years: he must now hope this gamble does not prove a terrible mistake in Russia.