Do not let the 4-3 scoreline deceive you. The round of 16 tie between Argentina and France was not a battle of equals. One side was fighting for survival, the other greatness. Barring for a moment of inspiration from Angel Di Maria, Argentina was never in the game. Even when they took the lead in the second half through a freak deflection, it was always matter of when, not if, a meek surrender was in the offing. Ever since their 3-0 drubbing against Croatia, Argentina has been on the ventilator. It was only a matter of time before the plug was pulled. The close win against Nigeria showed how the mighty had fallen. The round of 16 exit only confirmed what many had long suspected.
Against France, Argentina’s attack was lifeless, the midfield listless, and the defence clueless. After Diego Maradona, whose bizarre antics in the stands left many scratching their heads, coach Jorge Sampaoli owes Argentina an apology. Not just for his decisions on the field, but also for his actions off the field. Till the day before the France game, he was battling accusations that Lionel Messi is running the show in his stead. A clip from the Nigeria game that showed Sampaoli consulting his captain, Messi, before bringing on Sergio Aguero as substitute has been interpreted differently in the press.
Not his fault. Yet Sampaoli has only himself to blame for singing paeans about Messi instead of sending out a strong statement. “He (Messi) is shining light for all of us and we have to do our very best to all try to be at his level,” said Sampaoli in the press conference ahead of France game.
It is incredible the Argentina camp did not descend into the fracas that marred France in World Cup 2010. Aguero taking a swipe at Sampaoli after the Croatia game reminded of Nicolas Anelka’s fallout with his coach Raymond Domenech. It was the first hint that not all was well. Aguero would later find himself on the bench against Nigeria. And Messi trotting off towards Sampaoli on the sidelines when the game was tied at 1-1 only lent weight to the rumours.
Besides, Argentina has reached its sell-by date. Nine of the 13 players who touched the ball on Saturday night were 30 years or above. Compare this to the French side, whose average age is 26 years. And their twin goal scorer Kylian Mbappe is 19. It took eight years for France to evolve into a youthful and expressive side that it is today. Argentina must begin culling its squad to avoid a repeat in Qatar in 2022.