Let’s start with some good news for Argentina fans: the selección’s performances surely aren’t going to get any worse than this. Admittedly, results can still get worse, but it seems difficult to imagine that we’ll sit through another performance as anaemic and clueless as the one that brought Tuesday night’s 1-0 defeat to Paraguay — only Argentina’s fourth World Cup qualifying loss at home ever (a mere thirteen months after the third).
What’s causing this malaise?
Lionel Messi’s absence is something to get out of the way right off the bat. Of course Argentina is better with him — any team would be — and of course it’s won all three of the 2018 qualifiers it’s played with him and a rather lower proportion of those played without him, but that can’t be an excuse. This team, with the players on display on Tuesday night, should be doing a hell of a lot better without Messi.
In the post-match statements, there were some players who — if this were most other teams — we would be pretty certain had decided their time with the team was at an end. In particular, both Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María acknowledged their form isn’t good right now. Di María even went so far as to add that he’s not playing well for his club (Paris Saint-Germain) either, which is the closest I’ve ever heard to an international player saying he shouldn’t be getting called up.
Yet it was Nicolás Gaitán who was the first player to be given the hook, substituted for local Córdoba boy Paulo Dybala midway through the second half. Manager Edgardo Bauza had said on Monday that Dybala hadn’t looked at home on the right wing against Peru last Thursday, but that’s exactly the position he was sent on last night in a change that smacked of conservatism, when Bauza had also said on Monday that he knew the team had to take risks.
That Gaitán was the first player taken off only served to reinforce the idea that “Messi’s friends” — Agüero, Di María and Gonzalo Higuaín — are undroppable. The truth of course is just the opposite. Such is the opprobrium in which those players are now held that it’s hard to seriously believe a manager who dropped them would be criticized for doing so even if things didn’t work out immediately (and it should also be said that we don’t have conclusive proof that they are indeed being picked because they get on with Messi). And yet successive managers — Gerardo Martino in two Copas América and now Bauza in his first four games in charge — have kept faith in them.
If the manager has a different opinion from the majority about the merits of certain players, though, that’s not necessarily a major issue. What is more of a problem is the worrying lack of clarity exposed out on the pitch. Bauza is an intelligent, astute manager who prizes balance in his teams, but against Paraguay last night, needing an equalizer, Argentina ended up with four strikers on the pitch and Javier Mascherano as the main midfield playmaker — in fact, as the only midfielder the team had. It was a perfect demonstration of why more strikers doesn’t necessarily equal a more attacking team.
At the same time, there were again insecurities at the back. It’s only fair to point out that the defence was a makeshift one (Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori were all suspended), but all the same what on Earth Martín Demichelis is still doing anywhere near the national team — never mind as third choice centre back — is simply inexplicable.
Mascherano has been playing at center back for one of the world’s best club sides for three or four years now, and while he very rarely puts a foot wrong (the calamitous backpass leading to Peru’s penalty equalizer on Thursday being the exception that proves the rule), he hardly adds any zip to the midfield either. Center back might only be his second best position, but it’s arguably the one in which he’d be of most use to the national team, allowing a slightly more progressive number 5 like Matías Kranevitter to partner Éver Banega’s creativity in midfield.
There are eight qualifiers left and the group is so tight that an upturn in form could still quite conceivably see Argentina finish top — but it would take a big upturn, and right now they’re in the fifth-place playoff spot, without much margin for any further slip-ups. In a month, the qualifiers reconvene, and with or without Messi, better performances will be required: the team visits Brazil before hosting Colombia.
That’s a pair of fixtures that is going to be very challenging against two in-form teams. Brazil has won four out of four since Tite took over as manager from the unloved Dunga — and even more surprisingly, it’s enjoyable to watch again for the first time in at least a decade. Venezuela made things hard last night, in spite of an early goal gifted to Gabriel Jesus, but the five-times world champion was confident and looks a team transformed.
Colombia’s 2-2 draw at home to Uruguay was very entertaining, but it was its 1-0 away win over Paraguay, with a late winner from Edwin Cardona, that impressed me: Colombia hasn’t always managed to dig in and get results when not at its best, but showed real character to keep going in Asunción and take those three vital points.
Elsewhere, Ecuador is back. After winning its first four qualifiers and failing to win its next four, it took a win and a draw from this double-header, tonking Chile 3-0 before coming back from 2-0 down after an awful first half in La Paz to draw 2-2 away to Bolivia. And Chile still looks seriously out of sorts, but isn’t dead just yet — Arturo Vidal’s magnificent performance yesterday earned it a 2-1 win in the clásico del Pacífico against Peru in Santiago, to keep it in touch with Argentina.