Willy Caballero makes case for a World Cup place, Ever Banega needs to shine
After Friday's 2-0 win over Italy in Manchester, the mood in Argentina around the national team has lifted a little.
It wasn't a performance without faults, but it was one of the best -- if not the best -- of Jorge Sampaoli's time in charge of La Albiceleste, particularly considering Lionel Messi was absent with a minor injury.
This "tour" is all about Sampaoli working with his players and getting a look at them in match situations with some World Cup spots up for grabs.
With that in mind, let's take a look three players who staked a claim for a place on the plane to Russia -- and three who could make a similar impact Tuesday when Argentina visits Spain.
Close to booking their spot in Argentina's 23
1. Willy Caballero
In the stadium where he played his club football (occasionally) for three years, Caballero finally, at the age of 36, made his Argentina debut. He impressed to such a degree that various pundits named him man of the match. Most visibly, that accolade came thanks to the saves he made during Italy's best spell of the game, in the second half. But equally important, given how Sampaoli likes his teams to play, was his distribution from the back, particularly with the ball at his feet. There is a spot up for grabs in goal in the World Cup squad; indeed, there might even be a starting place available, given the number of goalkeepers Sampaoli has looked at in friendlies and his apparent unease with Sergio Romero's lack of playing time at Manchester United. On Friday, Caballero made the most convincing case of any goalkeeper yet to fill Romero's gloves.
2. Nicolas Tagliafico
A bit of a cheat, as really this entry is for two players in one. Both full-backs, Fabricio Bustos on the right and Tagliafico on the left, were quietly impressive against Italy. Independiente clubmates until Tagliafico's January transfer to Ajax, they play in positions where Argentina are not blessed with options, and Tagliafico in particular made a strong case for inclusion. Sampaoli sent his team out to press high, and the full-backs clearly had instructions to provide width in attack. That led to exposed spaces in wide areas when Italy counterattacked, but there were improvements in that regard in the second half, and Tagliafico's strong display could have been awarded with a debut goal when he ran onto a loose ball only to see his shot pushed away by Gianluigi Buffon. It feels like a long time since Argentina have had a full-back prepared to get so far forward on such a regular basis.
3. Manuel Lanzini
Yes, there was the goal -- the West Ham United man's first for his country, in his third appearance -- which would seem to make this an easy choice. But in truth, even before he belted the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box, Lanzini was putting in a performance that rivaled Caballero's for man-of-the-match recognition. He wasn't involved constantly, pulling strings and tormenting Italy ceaselessly, but Lanzini took on his man often, moved across the forward line sufficiently and linked with Messi's replacement, Giovani Lo Celso, well enough to suggest that in tight games he might be an option to help open up the match. Surprisingly, given Argentina's pedigree in Lanzini's role -- there are currently few top-class options here -- and with Paulo Dybala not having taken his opportunities so far (although Sampaoli insists he's not out of the running for a World Cup place), the West Ham man could be making a late charge for a World Cup spot.
Need to shine vs. Spain
1. Nahuel Guzman
The third goalkeeper in the squad will almost certainly get some playing time Tuesday -- most likely, the thinking seems to be, with him playing one half and Romero the other. The only current member of the squad who doesn't play in either Argentina or Europe (he's at Tigres, in Mexico), Guzman is unlikely to push for a starting place but could cement his spot as third-choice goalkeeper as long as he doesn't have a nightmare performance.
2. Ever Banega
He came off the bench Friday, replacing the disappointing Leandro Paredes, and immediately looked more incisive than the Zenit St. Petersburg man. Where Paredes had seemed too cautious to get forward, perhaps too nervous about making a mistake in what was an audition for a squad place, Banega -- surely assured of a place in the squad, but fighting for a spot in the starting lineup -- seized the moment, opening the scoring after some nice link-up play with Lanzini and Lo Celso and helping the midfield to look better in general. The big question on Tuesday: if Messi plays, can Banega (who's expected to start that game) put in a similarly impressive display in tandem with the main man? That, for a player of his characteristics and ability, is going to be the decisive factor, given the importance of Messi to everything Argentina do.
3. Lautaro Martinez
If you've not heard the name already, you will be doing before long -- whether or not he plays on Tuesday (common sense would dictate he'll get a run-out at some point), and whether or not he ends up going to Russia. The 20-year-old Racing centre-forward is quite simply the best attacker -- probably the best player, to be honest -- in the Argentine Superliga right now. Martinez has an elite mentality, illustrated by his displeasure with his performance after scoring a hat trick on his Copa Libertadores debut against Cruzeiro. A huge money move to Internazionale is close to completion (although Borussia Dortmund tried to hijack it with an even bigger offer (reported at $40 million), and his form, rapid improvement and fearless play put him in with a chance. If he features against Spain, it'll be fascinating to see how he handles the step up.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com