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Argentina’s Copa America campaign shows there’s no easy fix for their woes

The Albicelestes failed to make it to a third consecutive Copa América final on Wednesday after a 2-0 defeat to Brazil at Belo Horizonte, which fleshed out the many existing frailties of the Lionel Messi-led Argentina.

Written by Debkalpa Banerjee |
Updated: July 3, 2019 9:42:04 pm
Argentina’s Lionel Messi and teammates after losing the semi-final of the Copa América against Brazil (Reuters)

Losing 2-0 to Brazil in the semi-final of Copa América in front of the 52,000 at Mineirão Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Argentina prolonged their 26-year-long wait for a major international trophy. After dragging themselves through the mud during the group stages and “playing for their lives” to defeat Venezuela in the quarter-finals, Lionel Messi and his teammates were left to face a jarring truth — Argentina are a shadow of their image, crushed by expectations born from nostalgia.

Even though manager Lionel Scaloni believed that “by merit, the team that should have advanced to the final was Argentina”, most would disagree. Barring the “crazy” refereeing decisions that denied Argentina two penalties, which caused Messi to accuse the official of being on Brazil’s side, the Albicelestes were always second to the Seleção throughout the match.

While Messi has attracted much of the criticism after losing the ever-emotive clash, the team’s campaign in the tournament shared a striking resemblance with a failed laboratory experiment. The team can’t seem to retain a manager, there’s a lack of leadership and the pool of quality players has plunged, in part due to financial hurdles.

Argentina have gone through three managers in as many years — Edgardo Bauza, Jorge Sampaoli and now, Lionel Scaloni — all of whom have been transformed into sweaty wrecks thanks to the pressures of the job. The future of Scaloni, a former West Ham United full-back, now hangs in the balance given he was appointed by Argentina’s Football Association only till the 2019 Copa América.

Owing to a lack of tactical solutions, consolidation of the midfield core and over-reliance on the front three, especially Messi, Scaloni failed come up with anything inspiring after their exit from the 2018 World Cup. With an ever-changing formation, from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-2-1-2, the men in sky blue have often found themselves confused about their attacking positions. The existing lack of defensive cohesion and quality at the back is exemplified by the lack of coordination between Juan Foyth and Nicolás Otamendi against Brazil.

Despite their spirited fight against their traditional rivals on Wednesday, Scaloni’s selections of Marcos Acuña over Giovani Lo Celso in midfield has come under fire. What made it worse for the Albicelestes faithful was that even after having a near-death experience in Group B, losing to Colombia and drawing with Paraguay, Scaloni showed ineptitude with squad selection and defensive organisation. Brazil made the most of it, evident from the way Gabriel Jesus’ tore their midfield and defence apart on the counter to provide Roberto Firmino the assist for the second goal.

What also contributed to their recent downfall is the decision to promote and select only players plying their trade in Argentina, one that was taken by technical director César Luis Menotti. The Copa América elimination should open the former Argentina manager’s eyes to the fact that neither goalkeeper Franco Armani is a reincarnation of Ubaldo Fillol, nor is full-back Renzo Saravia a reborn Jorge Olguín. Both Olguín and Fillol were a part of the 1978 World Cup-winning Argentina squad alongside Mario Kempes.

A culmination of peripheral factors and the hope of Lionel Messi coming back from retirement everytime has led to the inhibited growth of Argentina ever since their World Cup final loss to Germany in 2014. With almost similar mistakes in the 2015 and 2016 Copa América finals, Argentina have continued to spiral for some time now even with the almost divine presence of the La Pulga.

In the pre-match interview, Brazil defender Thiago Silva rhetorically had asked, “What is Messi?” But the talismanic player’s performance and the grace with which he picked himself up after the defeat did somewhat answer the question.

Messi brought Argentina within centimetres of glory, hitting the post in the second half of the semi-final. Messi made up for his solitary goal in the tournament by taking the most shots (16), creating the most chances (9) and completing the most take-ons (20) for his team. Messi is the one who despite losing four finals in his nation’s colours, would again return in search of redemption.

But the question remains whether or not Argentina can provide him a viable shot at redemption considering the disarray it finds itself in.

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