An exciting intra-Latin American fixture kicks off in Cordoba at midnight UK time, as interim managers Lionel Scaloni and Ricardo Ferretti lead their sides into battle for the first of two showdowns in four days. Both sides reached the last 16 in Russia back in the summer, but were then knocked out without much ceremony, and there are fresh starts aplenty here, not least as Argentina have not selected Leo Messi, currently on international hiatus.
Many followers of the Albiceleste will be excited to see Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala – often out of favour at national level despite excellent club form – and thrilling Inter youngster Lautaro Martinez in the squad, and potentially all starting here. For Mexico, the absence of pigeon-catcher Hirving Lozano is a negative, but a young squad drawn mostly from the domestic Liga-MX will certainly not be coming south to give their opponents an easy time. Scaloni will know that the home fans need cheering up after a summer of misery; can he provide that fillip?
Argentina vs Mexico Prediction: Argentina 2-1 Mexico
Having a player like Messi around is never a bad thing, but there is a sense that his presence for Argentina has too often led to other players simply deciding to “get the ball to Leo” and let him do the rest. They may actually gain some balance without him in the side, as they must become tactically more democratic. Although Dybala and Icardi have a grand total of zero international goals between them, this shift may be to their benefit, and their scoring records in Italy show that they’re certainly capable of netting if given the service to do so.
Our recommended tip: Mauro Icardi FGS
Dybala’s absence from the Argentina squad has been a mystery to many casual watchers, as his goal total in Serie A tends to outstrip his compatriots who also play in Italy. In truth, he has been left out mostly due to a spat with teammates over a non-footballing issue, but his inclusion here points to a thawing in that froideur, and there’s no denying his effectiveness in the penalty area. Give him a chance, and he should put it away – and after a lengthy absence from the striped blue shirt he’ll be keen to make up for lost time.
The sides last met three years ago, in a friendly at Texas’ AT&T Stadium. Mexico got off to a fine start, and led after 19 minutes through a Javier Hernandez goal. A second was added twenty minutes from time by Hector Herrera, but just as Mexico were preparing to celebrate a fine win Argentina pulled one back on 85 minutes through substitute Sergio Aguero. Four minutes later, Messi got on the end of an Aguero pass to equalise.
The sides also met in the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup, when two goals for Carlos Tevez and one for Gonzalo Higuain gave the Albiceleste a 3-0 lead. A late Hernandez goal narrowed the margin, but Argentina continued their long undefeated streak against Mexico with a comfortable win.
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Players to watch: Lautaro Martinez & Erick Gutierrez
Martinez was marked for glory while playing in his home country for Racing Club. There he learned from an Inter and Argentina scoring legend, Diego Milito. Playing alongside Milito was a valuable education, although it meant Martinez was forced into a wide role instead of his preferred central position. Nonetheless, the versatility that added to his game has been invaluable, earning him a move to Inter, the club where his mentor thrived. A mobile, intelligent striker, Lautaro is yet another attacker off Argentina’s seemingly endless production line.
Gutierrez has been compared favourably with Mexican national captain Andres Guardado, and has the same ability to play a number of positions with equal effectiveness. Having joined his compatriot Lozano at PSV, the former Pachuca midfielder has hit the ground running, scoring and making an assist on his debut. With an excellent eye for a pass and a seemingly innate knowledge of when to make a run and when to hold, the 23-year-old may well add one or more of Europe’s elite clubs to his CV in the future.