Before kick-off against Venezuela, Lionel Messi briefly waved at his family seated in the front rows of the Maracana, a welcome sight in a stadium of which he has no fond memories. Back in 2014, the stage at Rio’s iconic ground couldn’t have been bigger. Messi and Argentina took on Germany for the ultimate prize in world football and on a hot Carioca afternoon, legs tired, nerves frayed and with his energy sapped from a demanding season and tournament, Messi failed to drag his Argentina over the finish line.
Instead, substitute Mario Gotze stole the limelight with an extra-time winner and Messi was left to lament what could have been. And so, Argentina went another year without a silverware. The 2015 and 2016 editions of the Copa America didn’t bring any solace either. Chile defeated Argentina twice from the penalty spot, but more than just defeat in a major final those results signposted a steep slide for the Argentina national team, which resulted in last year’s chaotic and almost catastrophic campaign at the Russia World Cup.
Things have scarcely improved at Copa America. Argentina remain a team without a coherent idea on the field. The caretaker manager Lionel Scaloni professed a new and daring style of play with pace on the wings when he took over, but the reality is quite something else. His team has little direction and looked very laboured in the group stages. The ball tends to gravitate to Messi, but without a plan around him, Argentina are paralysed. Even so, the Argentineans possess attacking riches that few other teams around the world can match.
On Friday, Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero lined up alongside Messi in the forward trident. That compelled Aguero to drop deep and help out defensively to restore the balance in a top-heavy team. With little supply, the forwards have been misfiring, but it’s in defence where Argentina's main concern lies.
The aging back line was torn apart by Colombia and they struggled again against Venezuela. Martinez’s wondrous back heel early on after a flurry of corner kicks alleviated the pressure on Argentina, but Venezuela outnumbered them in midfield as Messi dropped in behind the strikers and Paredes sat deep to screen the defence.
The Vinotinto still preferred long balls to Salomon Rondon, a powerful striker who bossed Nicolas Otamendi through the match. Wingers Darwin Marchis and Murillo Romana played off him, causing Argentina’s full backs a lot of problems. Venezuela’s number seven got the better of Tottenham Hotspur's Juan Foyth, a makeshift left back with German Pezzella playing at centre back, but Rafael Dudamel’s team struggled for a final pass and final product.
In the second half, Venezuela rolled the dice, streaming forward and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation after the introduction of Santos player Yeferson Soteldo. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for Venezuela to dominate Argentina, but that is precisely what happened at the Maracana for long spells after the interval. Venezuela were stretching the Argentinean defence as they had done in that 3-1 friendly victory in March and Ronald Hernandez elicited the first fine save from Franco Armani in the 70th minute.
A lapse of concentration by his Venezuelan counterpart, however, settled the match. There was always a danger Venezuela would be caught on the counter not having their first-choice center backs at their disposal, so it was all the more painful that Wuilker Farinez, a promising young goalkeeper at the heart of this Venezuela generation, spilled Sergio Aguero’s simple low shot for substitute Giovanni Lo Celso to score.
With modest wins over Qatar and Venezuela, Argentina have progressed to the last four after a disastrous defeat to Carlos Queiroz’s Colombia, but that mini recovery hasn’t concealed the profound identity crisis engulfing the team. Scaloni has never picked the same eleven in his 13-match reign. The result has been a team that seems to be going nowhere, hamstrung by an old, frazzled defence and a lodestar under pressure in a compulsive quest to win silverware for his country.
In the last two games, Messi all but disappeared. Next Tuesday, he can’t afford to do so when Brazil await in Belo Horizonte. The hosts have been fighting their own demons this tournament, but Tite’s team know they should find enough joy with the pace of Everton Cebolinha and Gabriel Jesus to expose their South American rivals.
Updated Date: Jun 29, 2019 19:51:22 IST