Argentina to step into the Martino era with some familiar faces
The first international dates since the World Cup are already upon us, and, even in a week which sees such epic clashes as Paraguay against Copa Libertadores runners-up Club Nacional de Paraguay in Austria (no, really!), it's not hard to pick out the juiciest-looking fixture from the list.
Germany versus Argentina was arranged long before the sides met in the World Cup final and should be an interesting rematch.
From both sides, there will be reason for interest in the start of a new era. While a number of German players have retired from international football since the World Cup win, Argentina have seen change of a different kind; a new-look Argentine FA still finding its feet following Julio Grondona's death, and a new manager in the form of Gerardo Martino, will both be starting a new era here.
Neither break with the old guard is completely clean, though; the AFA is still dominated by the same Grondona sympathisers who were there before, and Martino's ability to construct a tight defence at this level -- demonstrated during his time in charge of Paraguay -- will provide at least some continuity with Alejandro Sabella's reign.
The big question, of course, is what direction Martino will take this side in, and on Wednesday, we'll get our first indications.
That being said, Martino hasn't had free rein to pick his team. AFA directors had already briefed the press before he revealed that the squad for the friendly against Germany would be the same 23 players who went to the World Cup 'in recognition of the second-place finish,' as Ole put it, and so it proved -- more or less. The new man did make a couple of his own decisions, though.
For one thing, Boca Juniors goalkeeper Agustin Orion, who was third choice in Brazil, isn't travelling. Martino has sensibly decided that taking three goalkeepers for one friendly is a bit daft, and with Boca already ceding Fernando Gago to him this week -- a week in which the club have their own commitments in the Copa Sudamericana -- has allowed Orion to stay at home.
Injuries, though, have reared their head in the past few days. That gives us a chance to look for clues about Martino's approach based on the small sample of evidence of two call-ups.
Defender Ezequiel Garay and forwards Lionel Messi and Rodrigo Palacio have had to pull out of the squad due to injury; Martino hasn't announced a replacement for Garay but in place of Messi and Palacio has called up Erik Lamela and Nicolas Gaitan.
Both are worthy call-ups.
Gaitan, by all accounts, was superb for Benfica last season and offers pace and technique, along with a recognition of his part in the attacking scheme of things; his goal threat isn't a great strength, but he was a key part of the league's best attack as Benfica won their 33rd title.
He was on the short list of players for the World Cup but didn't quite make Sabella's cut -- so seeing him brought in now is no big departure.
Lamela, though, feels more like Martino's own call-up. A difficult first season at Tottenham Hotspur meant he was never in with a shot at the World Cup, but with a proper preseason behind him, he's started the current campaign magnificently and has to feel optimistic about his international future if he can kick on from here. Never frozen out under Sabella -- just unlucky last season -- the former River Plate man is still only 22.
To that end, Lamela could prove key during the next four years -- precisely the period Martino hopes to be in charge for.
Mauricio Pochettino taking over at Spurs can only help his chances, too; Pochettino played alongside Martino for Newell's Old Boys between 1988 and '94, and the two remain on good terms.
Pochettino, then at Southampton, was one of the first to give Martino his endorsement when the latter was named Barcelona manager last year.
One thing we're less likely to see on Wednesday is a fully formed vision of how Martino's Argentina will play the ball out of defence, because, first, he arrived in Dusseldorf only on Monday night after attending the pope's Match For Peace in Rome (which Javier Mascherano, who flew to Germany on the same flight as Martino, played in ).
Second, Garay's absence means the most obvious candidate for centre-back who passes the ball out from the back won't be playing here.
On Wednesday, I'd expect Martino to stick as close as the available players allow to the starting XI Sabella sent out for the World Cup final, but in the long run, Mateo Musacchio, the 24-year-old Villarreal centre-back, could well come in.
Federico Fazio's move to play under Pochettino at Spurs could benefit him, too. Frustrated at a lack of playing time for Argentina last season, Fazio gave an interview to Radio Marca in Seville in March in which he accused Sabella of 'a bit of a lack of respect' for not calling him up.
If Fazio had a chance of going to the World Cup -- and it's my opinion he might well have been in the squad until he gave that interview -- he surely shot his chances with Sabella in the foot by saying that. Under the new boss, though, and playing his club football under Pochettino, he might play his way back into the side. For this game, though, Martino will see what he can do with the players who went to Brazil.
Argentina's attack on Wednesday, without Messi, is inevitably going to look very different than the last time they played Germany. Martino is obliged to come up with a Plan B right from his opening game -- but elsewhere on the pitch, watching what he does with a familiar group of players will be just as interesting.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and writes for ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard and Howler. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.