Argentina, FIFA World Cup, Leagues, Story

Lionel Messi hopes that Argentina will reach another World Cup final, but admits he’s focusing on the group stage first.

Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli has embarked on a long tour of Europe to monitor national team players and those on the cusp of selection.

Sampaoli says there are 60 players in contention for a place in Argentina’s final squad for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.

The 57-year-old, who left Buenos Aires for Spain on Tuesday accompanied by his assistant Sebastian Beccacece and fitness coach Jorge Desio, told the local media: “Our first stop will be Barcelona where we will talk with [Javier] Mascherano and Leo [Messi]. We will then go to Seville, Manchester, London, Liverpool and many more places.

“It’s going to be a very long and very extensive tour. We will meet many players and I hope we make the most of it. We want to gain time. I will be talking to coaches of players that we are following, watch the training sessions and speak to players. The idea is to draw conclusions that will be positive with respect to the future.”

Asked if this tour will be crucial when considering the final squad, Sampaoli said: “No, I don’t think so. There will be a lot more events in the future that will determine a list that right now is conformed of 45 to 60 players, but has to be reduced to 23.

“There are going to be players in and out depending on form and injuries. That is what we will consider when making the final evaluation.”

Jorge Sampaoli begins his tour of Europe with a visit to Spain to see Barcelona duo Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi.

One player that Sampaoli is keen to see is Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo.

The Argentina international returned to action in November for his club after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to a knee ligament injury.

“We are monitoring Rojo and we saw his last performances,” Sampaoli said. “We know that Rojo is getting in shape. He is a player that is always under consideration for selection. He has experience. We will talk to him as we haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet.”

Everton centre-back Ramiro Funes Mori is also a step closer to first-team return.

Funes Mori tore his meniscus while on international duty with Argentina back in March and underwent further knee surgery in July.

“We know that he [Funes Mori] has been training with the team for the past few weeks,” Sampaoli said. “We are going to talk to him.”

Sampaoli also confirmed meetings with Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi in Italy.

Serie A’s leading scorer with 17 goals in 19 league starts for Inter Milan, Icardi missed Argentina’s last two games of 2017 through injury.

Higuain has also been in good form, scoring nine goals and setting up three more for Juventus.

The 30-year-old forward played 45 minutes in Sampaoli’s first match in charge against Brazil in September but he has not been named in a squad since.

“One of our planned visits on this trip is to see Gonzalo [Higuain],” Sampaoli said. “We will also take advantage and see Mauro [Icardi] in Milan.”

Atletico Madrid forward Angel Correa, who has not featured for Argentina under Sampaoli, will also get a visit from the national team coach.

“I want Angel [Correa] and others to know that even though they have not been called up yet they are being monitored by us,” Sampaoli said.

La Albiceleste booked their place in Russia next summer with a 3-1 win against Ecuador, courtesy of Messi’s hat trick. However, going into the game they were in danger of either having to go through a playoff to secure their place at the finals or missing out altogether.

“Our intention is to experience this year with intensity, with a lot of passion but also with a lot of wisdom in order to have the right vision,” Sampaoli said.

Argentina will face Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria in Group D of the World Cup.

Adriana Garcia is a Valencia-based football writer who covers La Liga for ESPN FC.

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