Before a ball had been kicked in Qatar, Ángel Di María and Lautaro Martínez had been touted as the perfect partners for Lionel Messi in Argentina's attack. But in the end, the Paris Saint-Germain star has found a new supporting cast in the form of Julián Álvarez, Enzo Fernández and Alexis Mac Allister.
Between the four of them they share all seven of the goals scored by the Albiceleste in their first four games at this year’s World Cup: Messi has scored three, Álvarez two and Enzo Fernandez and Mac Allister are on one each. At the other end of the scale, Di María and Lautaro Martínez have yet to get off the mark.
Juventus star Di María started all three group games, but in the third he left the field with a quadriceps problem and did not play in the last 16 match against Australia, ceding his place in the starting 11 to Alejandro 'Papu' Gomez, who also failed to score for La Scaloneta.
Di María, the scorer of Argentina's title-winning goal in last year's Copa América final, a 1-0 win over Brazil at Maracanã, wants to recover from his injury problem as soon as possible.
"He was not fit to play today, Ángel. We hope that as the days go by he can improve and make it to the next game," coach Lionel Scaloni said after the victory over Australia.
The case of Lautaro has been more complicated from an emotional point of view. The Inter Milan attacker, a starter in the first two games, has lost his place in the side to Julián ‘La Araña’ Álvarez. Martínez has come off the bench in the second half but failed to make much of an impression.
One passage of play from the Australia match symbolises how the World Cup has gone for Lautaro so far: in the 89th minute against Australia he had a clear chance to make it 3-1 and extend his side’s advantage, at a time when the opposition were pressing hard to force extra time. Martínez lashed the ball high into the air.
The striker had scored two goals in the opening defeat to Saudi Arabia, but both were disallowed. And his team could not avoid a painful defeat.
"Lautaro is a very important player for us, he's a striker, he lives for scoring goals. It's important that he's well for what's to come," Messi said after the match against Australia.
Álvarez, 22, moved to English Premier League champions Manchester City in the middle of this year and has already made an impression, though he trails Erling Haaland in the pecking order upfront.
For Argentina, however, Álvarez has played himself into the team, netting twice in the two games he has started and repaying his manager’s trust.
“It's perfect for Juliân to score, and Lautaro is going to score too," Scaloni insisted after Saturday's game.
In midfield, 21-year-old Enzo Fernández has been one of the surprises of the World Cup. The Benfica midfielder was the star performer in Argentina’s crucial 2-0 win over Mexico on matchday two, a crucial result that lifted the team’s morale after the shock opening 2-1 setback against Saudi Arabia.
Fernández energised the team's attacking play and scored a wonder goal to seal the win, receiving Messi’s congratulations. It was a perfect night for him.
"Enzo doesn't surprise me. I know him. I see him train, and I see him play every day. I also played against him in the Champions League. He deserves it, he's a spectacular player," Messi said after the game, speaking about his young compatriot.
Following that match, the midfielder started against Poland and Australia, confirming himself as a ball retainer and granting the necessary space to the attackers up front.
Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister, 23, is the other midfield player who is performing at a high level. He was also involved heavily in the game against Poland, scoring the goal that broke the deadlock against Poland, and he was voted the best in that match.
The 'post-Messi generation' is starting to take over with the playmaker himself still turning out performances at a very high level - the perfect combination to make Argentina champions?
by Diego Reniares, AFP