Argentina will start Sergio Aguero ahead of Gonzalo Higuain in their World Cup opener against Iceland, coach Jorge Sampaoli surprisingly revealed on Friday.
Juventus striker Higuain will be left out in favour of Aguero, who is overcoming a knee injury that kept him out of Manchester City’s final games of the Premier League season.
“I think this is the right team to start the World Cup — but we might make changes later,” Sampaoli said.
Sampaoli, who has a reputation for unorthodox formations, seems to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 shape for Saturday’s first game for the 2014 runners-up against tournament debutants Iceland, fielding two holding midfielders in Lucas Biglia and veteran Javier Mascherano.
“The Mascherano-Biglia tandem at midfield secures us defensive alternatives that we will need and that another pair can’t give us,” Sampaoli said.
Aguero will play in front of talisman Lionel Messi, with Angel Di Maria and Maximiliano Meza on either side of the Barcelona forward.
Despite Messi’s personal and club success at Barcelona, the pressure is on for Messi to win his first major trophy with Argentina.
“I can see [Messi]’s in a great form and very excited about the possibility of starting a new tournament that we expect will put him in the place that he deserves,” Sampaoli said.
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Meza, who plays for Independiente, is the only Argentina-based player in the XI, but Sampaoli said the 26-year-old was up to the task, even if his inclusion relegates Juventus star Paulo Dybala to the bench.
“Meza, he was really the person we were looking for. He really gives us versatility, he’s a very versatile player, he allows us to recover balls, so he is really ready,” the coach said. “And he’s just as good as any other players he plays with. Maybe he’s not as close as other players are to elite games but I think he is somebody who knows what Argentina means.”
Goalkeeper Willy Caballero has been given the nod, with Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo named as the two centre-backs between full-backs Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Tagliafico.
Iceland may be the smallest country ever to qualify for a World Cup, but Sampaoli was not underestimating his opponents. Argentina have been training to try to combat Iceland’s notable height advantage, and Sampaoli admitted the 6-centimetre difference remained a challenge.
“It’s not only that they’re very tall, it’s also that they’re very good getting balls in the air,” he said. “So yes we have trained that, we have worked to improve that to see if we can limit that capacity.
“I’m sure it’s going to be very, very tough because they are very tight and they can counter-attack. But we have been preparing for a long time.”
Information from Reuters was used in this report.