Willy or Won’t He?
With the next round of World Cup qualifiers just around the corner, Argentina sit top of the group with 20 points from nine games and look well on track to make it to Brazil. Albiceleste head coach Alejandro Sabella will nevertheless want to hammer home their advantage in the upcoming double header against Venezuela and Bolivia to all but guarantee their passage.
The squad list – announced on Thursday - contained all the usual suspects bar the surprise inclusion of Monterrey defender José Basanta. What stood out most, though, were a couple of the names that were not called up.
First and foremost among those pushing for a call up is Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero. The former Boca & Elche stopper has been in sparkling form this season, helping Malaga to 5th in La Liga whilst keeping three clean sheets as los Boquerones cruised through the Champions League group stages unbeaten in their maiden campaign.
While the brilliant Isco has received most praise and adulation, Malaga’s success has built on a settled defence that has conceded just 25 in the league – the second best to Atletico Madrid on 24. This has been in no small part to Caballero who has produced a string of dazzling performances and boasts the highest save percentage (76% at the time of writing), leading many to widely tout Willy as the best keeper in La Liga so far this season.
An unused sub in the Argentina squad that won gold at the 2004 Athens and a member of the 2001 under-20 World Cup winning side, Caballero can lay claim to some limited international experience. But the fact that the 31-year-old remains uncapped is somewhat baffling and a recent virtuoso performance against Bilbao served to strengthen the growing calls for a national team senior debut.
Sergio Romero has long laid claim to the no.1 jersey for Argentina but doesn’t have too much real competition for his place. Admittedly, there are a number of decent deputies available to Sabella. Mariano Andújar is having a good season with Catania and usually makes the squad while Espanyol’s Cristian Álvarez was called up for the recent friendlies. Sabella also has a host of reliable domestic based custodians such as Sebastián Saja (Racing), Marcelo Barovero (River), Agustín Orión (Boca), Cristian Campestrini (Arsenal) and Agustín Marchesín (Lanús) all at his disposal too.
However, Caballero’s form over the past two seasons cannot be ignored and should merit him with at least a call up in the near future. Romero, not hitting his usual high standards it has to be said, could well do with having someone breathing down his neck.
So why has Sabella decided not to risk shuffling his pack at this critical moment? On the face of it games against Venezuela and Bolivia might seem like dead certs but the reality is not quite that simple.
In the reverse fixture, Argentina lost 1-0 to Venezuela in Caracas and César Farías’ side are no longer whipping boys of the continent. A fourth-place finish in the last Copa America and a decent start to qualifying means the young Vinotinto side should not be underestimated.
Argentina also only managed a 1-1 draw with Bolivia in November and you only need to cast your mind back to the 6-1 loss in 2009 (albeit when managed by El Diego) to see the difficulties in playing at such altitude in La Paz. Sabella’s side have grown since both those fixtures but will still have to be at their best if they are to register six points ahead of June’s crunch match against an in-form Colombia.
It’s clear that Sabella has settled on his preferred starting line-up, often filling the remaining squad places with tried and trusted players (many from his Estudiantes days) that won’t rock the boat, and is currently reaping the rewards. Having said that, Caballero is hardly a divisive figure – like say, Tévez for example – and surely a place, even if only on the bench, would strengthen not exactly the most watertight of defences.
Along with the usual debates about Pastore and Lamela, another player in contention for a spot in the squad is Sampdoria’s Mauro Icardi. The 20-year-old shot to prominence with a glut of goals since the turn of the year and Sabella has openly been to watch him. Icardi, who arrived in Spain at the age of 6, is eligible to play for both Italy and Spain but has spoken of his desire to play for Argentina and has already played for the under-20s. It’s likely that at some point he will be fast tracked into the squad to ensure he doesn’t switch allegiance like previous oriundi, especially after recent overtures in the press made by Italian boss Cesare Prandelli.
Passport issues aside, Icardi would genuinely add something different to Argentina’s already bountiful attack. At 6ft 1 he would add an aerial presence to the attack – presumably why Franco di Santo has received the recent call ups – and would gain invaluable experience from senior players around him. The only worry is that with Messi, Agüero, Higuaín & Lavezzi ahead of him he may wonder where the opportunities will come from.
Despite being at opposite ends of their respective careers, based on current form Caballero and Icardi deserve a place in Alejandro Sabella’s squad. While calls for Icardi’s inclusion may be primarily motivated by the need to secure his loyalty to the Albiceleste and Caballero perhaps making do with a spot on the bench behind Romero, both could be useful alternatives come 2014 and now may well have been the best opportunity to integrate them. Has Sabella missed a trick? Quite possibly.