BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli’s search for an ideal attacking partner for Lionel Messi has earned Fernando Gago a first recall in two years as they seek victory in Thursday’s crucial World Cup qualifier at home to Peru.
Playmaker Gago is one of three players of Argentine first division leaders Boca added to Sampaoli’s squad after the weekend’s league action along with uncapped midfielder Pablo Perez and striker Dario Benedetto.
Argentina must beat Peru, direct rivals for a berth in next year’s finals in Russia, to have a chance of taking one of the four automatic places from the South American group or remain in contention for an intercontinental playoff.
Sampaoli had planned to link Sergio Aguero with Messi up front but has been denied that opportunity after the Manchester City striker’s injury in a car crash in Amsterdam last week.
Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi were seen by Sampaoli, who dropped Gonzalo Higuain, as the future alongside Messi but the pair have struggled to settle into the side.
Former Real Madrid midfielder Gago and Messi enjoyed a fruitful partnership in the 2014 World Cup campaign in which Argentina reached the final but injuries have curtailed his international career since 2015.
Argentina, lowest scorers in the 10-team group with 16 goals in as many matches, have chosen Boca’s Bombonera cauldron for its intimidating atmosphere to host Peru, who are looking to reach the finals for the first time in 36 years.
The top-four teams after the final round of matches go through to the finals while the fifth-place nation face a playoff against Oceania qualifiers New Zealand.
Argentina are in fifth place, level on 24 points with Peru but behind them on number of matches won. Brazil, on 37 points, have qualified, while Uruguay are second with 27, Colombia third with 26 and Chile sixth on 23.
Writing by Rex Gowar, editing by Ed Osmond