No Messi, no Magic – Sampaoli playing a risky game ignoring Dybala
Jorge Sampaoli's Argentina have struggled in terms of coherence and fluency in attack ever since the new coach took over in 2017, and in Friday's 2-0 win over Italy they were without the man who usually helps gloss over that: Lionel Messi.
Due to muscular fatigue, the Barcelona superstar was deemed unfit to feature against the Italians at the Etihad Stadium, as Luigi Di Biagio lost his first game as interim coach for the Azzurri thanks to two late goals after a flurry of substitutions caused the game to become disjointed.
Messi watched on from the expensive seats, the TV cameras panning to see his reaction with every wasted Argentina chance – the forward usually obliging and producing a frustrated reaction.
Without their talisman and leader, Manuel Lanzini, Giovani Lo Celso and Angel di Maria were charged with supplying the ammunition for Gonzalo Higuain, who himself has often failed to cover himself in glory on the big stage with Argentina.
Lanzini scored Argentina's second, but otherwise his performance was not exactly eye-catching, often running down blind alleys after darting in from the right, while Lo Celso, occupying Messi's position, was quiet.
Di Maria looked the most creative of the three. He saw a couple of shots easily stopped by Gianluigi Buffon, while he slipped Higuain through on one occasion with a fine reverse pass.
All that did was further highlight Sampaoli's bizarre decision to omit Paulo Dybala from his squad for these friendlies. The Juventus man is enjoying another solid campaign for Juventus and has been a regular in previous squads under the former Sevilla coach, yet this time he was absent and appears in real danger of being left out of the World Cup squad.
Sampaoli explained the decision in his pre-match news conference, reasoning that Dybala – like Mauro Icardi – simply has not adapted to Argentina's system very well. Yet, many would argue there are few attacking players who have.
While Messi's injury is only a minor one and he will likely feature against Spain on Tuesday, his absence and Argentina's lack of craft in the middle against Italy should worry Sampaoli.
No-one can replace the Barca man, though Dybala is arguably the most comparable player available to Sampaoli, both in terms of general talent and style of play.
If Messi were forced to miss a game – or more – during the World Cup, Dybala would be most people's choice of deputy in attack. His craft, vision and technique are unrivalled when you consider those picked ahead of him in Manchester.
There is even the argument Sampaoli might need to recklessly chuck on attacking players in a desperate attempt to salvage a result in Russia, a situation hardly outside the realms of possibility given their often listless display on Friday.
If such a circumstance was to arise, a coach would surely want to be able to call upon the best players possible?
Dybala certainly falls into that category and ignoring him will not leave Sampaoli with much of a plan B should the unthinkable happen to Messi. The likes of Lanzini and Lo Celso are simply not on the same level.