Dybala & Icardi in, Mascherano out: How Argentina must rebuild after World Cup disaster

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The Albiceleste's last-16 exit was hardly a surprise - but if they want to avoid a similar fate in Qatar the overhaul must begin right away

The first victim of Argentina's World Cup exit came almost instantly, and was perhaps the most predictable moment of a roller-coaster afternoon. Javier Mascherano officially hung up his boots as an Albiceleste players , and was soon followed by Lucas Biglia in retiring from international football

That pair will surely be the first of many players to bow out after one of the most chaotic World Cup campaigns from a major footballing nation in recent history. But Argentina must not stop there: now, finally, is the time to carry out a root and branch renovation of the national team that has long been overdue. 

Indeed, one might even argue that such a rebuilding should have taken place all the way back in 2014, when a functional side at the zenith of its powers fell just short in the World Cup final. New coach Gerardo Martino, however, deemed that the 2015 Copa America was a reward for those players, and 12 months later stuck with the bulk of that side for a third consecutive final defeat. 

Once the pragmatic, unimaginative Edgardo Bauza took the reins in 2016 with Argentina in crisis and Lionel Messi close to walking out, all thoughts of change were expelled in favour of coaxing back the captain and steering an errant qualifying campaign back on track. That sentiment continued the following year when Bauza in turn faced the sack and Jorge Sampaoli was drafted in as the Albiceleste's fireman. 

The likes of Mascherano, Biglia, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain were gifted another term in the national team through pure necessity. But the cracks were all too clear to see. Having squeezed through the qualifying campaign thanks largely to Lionel Messi's genius there was no way to hide in Russia; a 4-3 defeat to France in the last 16, far from being a shock, was the logical result for a team of tired toilers that have long demonstrated they are not up to the rigours of elite international football.

Now is the time to make serious changes, whether or not the much-questioned Sampaoli stays on as coach. It is perhaps no exaggeration after this debacle to say that of the squad that went to Russa up to 18 players could safely be discarded for the future - only captain Messi, if he can be convinced to stay on, Sergio Aguero, Nicolas Otamendi and a handful of others can be considered even as viable candidates in a new-look Albiceleste side. 

The good news for Argentina is that, while it may not have been on display in Russia, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. First in line will be Giovani Lo Celso. The Paris Saint-Germain star failed to see a single minute of action in the World Cup, sitting on the bench while the Albiceleste inexplicably appealed to Mascherano's rustic talents. But Lo Celso has the passing ability and vision to get the team's midfield running, while in the discarded Leo Paredes he has the perfect partner to add dynamism and bite to an engine room that stalled and spluttered throughout the tournament. 

Behind that pair Stuttgart's Santiago Ascacibar stands out as an updated version of Mascherano: tough in the tackle, for sure, but also equipped with a velocity of thought and feet that deserted the Hebei China Fortune player years ago. Further back, too, there are plenty of options to consider. Having taken three goalkeepers to Russia with a combined age of 100 but just nine international caps between them, now is the time to look at other options between the posts. Real Sociedad's Geronimo Rulli stands out, while new Udinese signing Juan Musso is also one to watch. 

2022 GFX

2022 GFX

In defence Zenit's Emanuel Mammana might have made the cut for Russia if not for an unfortunate injury, and he would be ably backed up by River promise Lucas Martinez Quarta. Independiente full-back Fabricio Bustos has also featured under Sampaoli and after holding his own at the World Cup Nicolas Tagliafico should have what it takes to make the left-back position his own. 

Paulo Dybala, meanwhile, deserves the chance to push on and stake out a permanent place in the Argentina side, whether or not Lionel Messi decides to stay on. Previous fleeting experiments with the pair in the team have failed to bear fruit but now is the time to make it work. Simply put, the Juventus star is too good to leave out of the set-up. With the base of the new team already set the two forward positions almost pick themselves: Inter duo Mauro Icardi and Lautaro Martinez have everything it takes to dominate the spot for the next decade. And let us not forget Cristian Pavon, who fizzed in Russia but has the potential to star at the very top in years to come. 

The list of players above is by no means exhaustive, and of course does not account for new talents that may appear in the next four years. But all the players, bar Rulli, are aged 25 or below and even at this early stage have shown signs of excelling in their respective clubs. Without wishing to gaze too far into the crystal ball, they must form the base of a coherent team that takes Argentina into Qatar 2022 and beyond. 

And what of Messi himself? The Barcelona wizard remained tight-lipped through an intensely disappointing World Cup by his elevated standards. The day after World Cup elimination he travelled back to Spain alone, amid uncertainty over what lies ahead for the man who has been Argentina's talisman for the best part of the decade. 

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Right now the most likely scenario would seem to be at least a temporary break-up between the captain and his nation, which could yet be remedied in the future. But if Argentina can take one lesson from this World Cup it is that Messi alone cannot deliver the trophy: with him, or without him, Argentina must prepare for the future with a balanced, young side that represents a collective project ahead of the big prize four years from now.

That will not happen in a vacuum, however. With this latest World Cup cycle ended Sampaoli or whoever is in charge must have the courage to clean out a tired, strife-ridden squad and inject the new talent that is so sorely needed. The ever-catastrophic Argentine FA, too, must prove it is up to the task. As hard as it is to believe, no less than four presidents of varying legitimacy held the reins of the FA between Messi's famous longing stare at the Jules Rimet Trophy in the Maracana four years ago and the first game of this World Cup.

It goes without saying that without a degree of stability in the boardroom a collective project on the pitch becomes that much harder; it is now down to the controversial Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia to show he deserves the responsibility of governing one of the world's strongest football nations, and oversee a real transformation in this tired side. That chance was missed in 2014, it cannot be squandered again. And if Messi wishes to come along for the ride, that would not go amiss either...

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