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Scaloni strikes a rapport with players in audition for national team post

Back-to-back wins over Mexico this week illustrate the good feeling around the Argentina camp that has been installed under the leadership of interim coach Lionel Scaloni.

Friday 23 November, 2018
Argentina's interim national team coach Lionel Scaloni gestures during the friendly match against Mexico at the Malvinas Argentinas stadium in Mendoza this week.
Argentina's interim national team coach Lionel Scaloni gestures during the friendly match against Mexico at the Malvinas Argentinas stadium in Mendoza this week. Foto:Andres Larrovere/AFP

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With all eyes turned towards today's do or die 'Superclásico Superfinal,' anything unrelated to River Plate or Boca Juniors is easy to miss.

Over the past month, endless column inches and stretches of webspace have been dedicated to the 180 minutes of action that will decide the next winner of the Copa Libertadores, with Saturday's meeting at the Monumental poised on a knife-edge, after a mouth-watering 2-2 draw that only makes the coming clash even more tantalising.

As hard as it may be to believe, however, life has continued in the background of the final. Particularly in the case of the much-maligned national team, which may have just found its next coach following the debacle of the Russia World Cup and subsequent sacking of Jorge Sampaoli four months ago. That is correct, just four months have passed since the Albiceleste's ignominious return from that competition, even if it feels that Boca and River alone have been gearing up for their final for at least a decade, given the intensity of our Superclásico saturation.

While the world of football was gazing towards Buenos Aires, the Albiceleste were quietly but effectively racking up back-to-back 2-0 wins over Mexico in Córdoba and Mendoza, results that seem to have vindicated the interim appointment of former Sampaoli collaborator and Under-20 coach Lionel Scaloni to the hot seat. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and other established names of the past three World Cup cycles left out, Scaloni has put together a young, experimental squad which has acquitted itself well in six friendlies post-Russia.

Tuesday's win was especially meaningful for two errant would-be stars who are still waiting to explode on the international scene. Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi have been considered amongst Italian football's elite for years now, thanks to their performances in Serie A with Juventus and Inter respectively, but their form in Argentina's colours – admittedly, with opportunities at a premium due to the intense competition for attacking places – has left much to desire.

The pair went into the second Mexico clash with an unwanted millstone still hanging over their heads: a failure to score with the senior Albiceleste side.

Icardi was the first to shed that weight with a wonderful finish after linking up with Tottenham Hotspur's Érik Lamela, another man who at 26 and allowing for a history of niggling injuries should feel legitimately aggrieved at the limited chances he has received. And in the final minutes it was Dybala's turn. A late, well-received substitute in Mendoza, the Juve star scythed through Mexico's unfamiliar defence and converted with class to open his account on his 17th international appearance. It may have just been a friendly and one of the least important goals the No. 10 has scored in his career, but the sheer joy and relief showed just how much that strike meant to him.

“I have got rid of my curse,” Dybala exclaimed to TyC Sports after the final whistle, while also paying tribute to his coach. “We feel comfortable with him,” he added.

Icardi, who has suffered a fractious relationship with the national team since making his debut in 2013, went even further.

“We feel comfortable with everyone here. Something really good has formed,” the Inter striker fired. “I was there before and there was not so much camaraderie and friendship. I hope it continues. When I came here [before] I did not feel that.”

That good feeling around the Argentina camp is almost certain to land Scaloni the job on a permanent basis, after a search effort on the part of the AFA that ranged between limited and non-existent. It is a huge step up for a man who has no track record whatsoever coaching at senior level and who, indeed, has just two years experience as part of a back-room staff: former Gráfico editor and Argentina director Cherquis Biallo told Infobae this week the hilarious story of how Sampaoli was convinced to draft him into his Sevilla team as a jack of all trades, thanks to the impromptu appearance of Scaloni's father at a family barbecue in his home town of Casilda to convince him of his son's merits.

By all accounts Scaloni is an amiable, passionate figure who does have experience of the Argentina side, at least as a player, and he certainly has struck up a rapport with his young troops during an extended trial period that has yielded four wins, a draw and a defeat. His proficiency in the top job, however, and even the question of how he will line up with the Albiceleste in as short a time as leading up to the Copa América in just over six months, is a huge, looming question mark.

Whether Scaloni will stick with his group of promising talents or welcome back the old hands will be seen in 2019. For now, no matter what his qualities, one conclusion is inescapable: that far from seeking the long-term project that is such an easily repeatable buzzword around Viamonte, the AFA has once more gone for the convenient, immediate option that has so often blown up in its face over the last decade.

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