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Sampaoli selects his 23 – and hopes for no regrets

Experienced goalkepeer Sergio Romero to miss tournament in Russia through injury, as coach opts to leave Icardi, Centurión at home.

Saturday 26 May, 2018
Sampaoli showing the list of players for the world cup
Sampaoli showing the list of players for the world cup Foto:TÉLAM/JOSÉ ROMERO

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The arduous task of condensing a nation’s best football talent into a mere 23 World Cup spots is always going to spark discussion and complaints. Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli received his own fair share of criticism on Monday when he confirmed the names of the players that would be travelling to Russia in a bid to improve upon the national team’s final spot attained four years ago in Brazil.

That squad lasted little more than 24 hours thanks to an unfortunate injury to Sergio Romero that robs the Manchester United keeper of the chance to make a third consecutive World Cup, which would have been a national record. It also marked a reprieve for Nahuel Guzmán, who had been left out of the original list; the eccentric Tigres star, however, may have some explaining to do to his boss after his father took to social media the previous day to slam Sampaoli’s snub. Once that embarrassment is over Guzmán can focus on the task ahead, convincing Sampaoli he deserves to be ahead of both Willy Caballero and Franco Armani in a race for the No. 1 jersey that has been flung wide open.

Guzmán aside, two players in particular would be forgiven for feeling aggrieved at being left out of the coach’s call-up. Both Mauro Icardi, Inter’s Serie A top scorer, and Racing Club talisman Ricardo Centurión had hopes of making the cut, and the decision to leave them in Argentina was met with some fierce opinions on Monday.

FROZEN OUT

Icardi in particular could be forgiven for believing he merited a spot. Frozen out of the Argentina squad for four years while he became Inter’s captain and star forward – the rumour that has loomed incessantly over his head is that the omission owes to a veto from none other than Lionel Messi due to his relationship with Wanda Nara, the ex-wife of Messi’s close friend Maxi López – Icardi finally got his break at the end of 2017 under Sampaoli, failing to make much of an impression in an Albiceleste side fighting tooth-and-nail for World Cup qualification. The Rosario native, however, has received little opportunity to prove himself as a long-term option, certainly when compared to Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuaín, who has failed to score for almost two years at international level and is notorious for his misses in 2014’s World Cup final and subsequent Copa América defeats. The Serie A season furthermore proved who was the man in form, Icardi smashing 29 goals to Higuaín’s 16 despite being in a far inferior Inter side, but it was all to no avail. Wife Wanda, who also acts as Icardi’s agent, insisted there were no hard feelings.

“I spoke to Jorge, as I do with lots of directors. A lot of harsh things were said that have hurt Mauro’s image. Jorge was very honest with me and I believe in him,” she explained to Radio Metro. “I knew what was going to happen, what we spoke about is between us. The only thing I know is that Mauro is the future No. 9 of the national team and he deserves it, his time will come. Sadly this time Jorge could not get him in.”

OFF-FIELD ACTIVITIES

Centurión, meanwhile, did his talking on the pitch.

The 25-year-old winger – who had been widely tipped for the final squad before ultimately losing out to Independiente’s Maxi Meza – took his 2018 tally up to nine goals in 20 games on Tuesday by hitting Racing’s only goal in a 2-1 defeat to Cruzeiro. The former Boca man has also contributed with nine assists and is considered, along with the likes of Boca’s Cristian Pavón and his 20-year-old team-mate Lautaro Martínez, as one of the finest players in Superliga.

His off-field activities have been a different story, however.

Centurión made the headlines this year for a taped clash with a police officer after running two red traffic lights in Lanús, while his rap sheet includes drunken displays in public and also serious domestic violence charges, which were ultimately dropped. His most recent transgression, the one that supposedly ended his World Cup chances, was ridiculously overblown: attending the birthday party of ex-Boca team-mate Darío Benedetto in a nightclub hours after Racing suffered a shock Copa Argentina elimination at the hands of Resistencia’s Sarmiento.

It seems a trivial enough issue upon which to make such a crucial decision, while there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who believe Boca chief and AFA vice Daniel Angelici forced him out of Sampaoli’s list after passing up the chance to sign Centurión to the Bombonera over the summer. The truth is out there: what is clear is that while Argentina have attacking talent to spare in Russia they might just end up rueing the absence of Icardi’s goalscoring instincts and Centurión’s penchant for the unpredictable.

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