Argentina have received a major boost ahead of the Copa America with the return of captain Lionel Messi to the squad after an eight-month absence.
The Barcelona star had taken a sabbatical following the Albiceleste‘s defeat to eventual winners France in the round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup and was not included in Lionel Scaloni’s previous selections.
Scaloni has named Messi and Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria, also included for the first time since last summer’s tournament, in his 31-man roster for this month’s friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco.
“Messi has been called up and we will decide whether he plays one or two games. He is playing a lot of games and physically all the players that come at this stage of the season are tired and would rather rest in the international window,” Scaloni said in a Thursday news conference in Buenos Aires. “He [Messi] prefers to come and that is a very important step. I will take that decision [regarding how much he plays], not anyone else. We don’t know yet.”
Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain of Chelsea have been passed over again by Scaloni as was Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi.
Scaloni stressed that he has no differences with Aguero and emphasized that this call-up is to evaluate other talent.
“My relationship with Aguero is perfect, I never had an argument with him,” he said. “He is a very good player. I don’t need to see him. I need to see other players.”
Scaloni also spoke to Argentina’s overall frustrations in international competitions.
“For us, what happened at the World Cup is a blow, for Messi as well, but he is now eager to return,” Scaloni said.
“It’s obvious that we have the best player in the world and for one reason or another we haven’t made it,” Scaloni said about Argentina’s play in major tournaments.
“We have gotten to three finals with him, we came close. It’s a thin line between winning and losing. I think we made the most of Messi and had Argentina won one of those finals, it would be a different story.”
He also explained his reasons for including Di Maria.
“We are without [Rodrigo] Palacio and without [Sebastian] Battaglia, we needed to reinforce that position. Mauro’s absence also affects us.”
Scaloni has not selected Aguero or Higuain since he replaced former coach Jorge Sampaoli after the World Cup.
Aguero tops the Premier League scoring charts with 18 goals in 25 league appearances.
Higuain scored his third league goal in his fifth league start for Chelsea in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Fulham.
Icardi, who is in the middle of a contract dispute with Inter Milan and has not played for the Nerazzurri since Feb. 8, has been dropped.
Juventus forward Paulo Dybala, who like Icardi scored his first international goal in Argentina’s last game of 2018, a 2-0 win over Mexico on Nov. 21, is included up front alongside Messi, Atlanta United’s Gonzalo Martinez, Atletico Madrid’s Angel Correa, Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez, uncapped River Plate’s Matias Suarez and Boca’s Dario Benedetto.
“Dybala and Messi can play together, they are two great players,” Scaloni said of the duo.
There is no room for Manchester United goalkeeper Sergio Romero, with Scaloni having called up uncapped Udinese goalkeeper Juan Musso and Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada.
About dropping Romero and Geronimo Rulli, Scaloni said: “I know both of them well and we want to see other goalkeepers.”
Defensa y Justicia pair Domingo Blanco and Lisandro Martinez are among the new names in the squad, as are Club America midfielder Guido Rodriguez and Boca Juniors midfielder Ivan Marcone.
“Marcone and Benedetto are two top players, we believe they are high quality and can give a lot to this team,” Scaloni said. “Our aim is for Argentina to be at the highest level.”
Scaloni has also called up uncapped River defender Gonzalo Montiel and Racing Club midfielder Matias Zaracho.
“Our idea is to play a few more friendlies in Argentina before the Copa America,” Scaloni said. “Right now we cannot guarantee that we can win the Copa America. It’s not realistic. The will is there but we have to work hard and be humble knowing it will be a very difficult tournament in Brazil.”
Argentina take on Venezuela on March 22 at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium before facing Morocco four days later at the Grand Stade in Tangier.
“I will probably make changes to the Copa America squad because we have players injured,” Scaloni added. “This is a provisional list. We believe that the more players we see the better it will be.”
The Albiceleste have been drawn in Group C of the Copa America with Colombia, Japan and Ecuador. Brazil will host the tournament, which will start on June 8.
Goalkeepers: Franco Armani (River Plate), Agustin Marchesin (Club America), Juan Musso (Udinese) and Esteban Andrada (Boca Juniors).
Defenders: German Pezzella (Fiorentina), Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Juan Foyth (Tottenham), Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City), Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Walter Kannemann (Gremio), Marcos Acuna (Sporting Lisbon), Gonzalo Montiel (River Plate), Renzo Saravia (Racing Club), Lisandro Martinez (Defensa y Justicia).
Midfielders: Leandro Paredes (PSG), Guido Rodriguez (America),Giovani Lo Celso (Real Betis), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Roberto Pereyra (Watford), Angel Di Maria (PSG), Matias Zaracho (Racing Club), Ivan Marcone (Boca Juniors), Domingo Blanco (Defensa y Justicia), Rodrigo de Paul (Udinese).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Angel Correa (Atletico Madrid), Paulo Dybala (Juventus), Dario Benedetto (Boca Juniors), Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan), Matias Suarez (River), Gonzalo Martinez (Atlanta United).