All too easy for the Barcelona and Argentina maestro
The Argentinian media, ever obsessed with the captivating tumult of the local league, only noticed that the national team was to play a friendly about 24 hours before kick-off. When they realised it was in Bern, Switzerland, and against the Swiss no less, they joyously trotted out every cliché known to man about the Alpine nation in the lead up to the match. Rather than raging against such lazy stereotyping, I have decided to embrace it and will include as much hokey pigeonholing in this article on Argentina’s progress under Alejandro Sabella as I can muster.
It had been two and a half months since the Selección’s last game; the dramatic Messi-inspired victory away to Colombia in a World Cup Qualifier. This had been an exalted result, but came only four days after a dire draw at home against the continent’s worst team, Bolivia, for which Sabella and his team had been slammed by the local press. No Central European-style cold, emotionless assessment of the big picture in this neck of the woods; it was all shotgun suicides after the Bolivia game, and celebrating shirtless in the streets waving fake plastic World Cup trophies after the Colombia result.
The point is, the jury was still out on Sabella, nicknamed ‘The Sloth’, and after such a long break between games, everyone was curious to see what he had schemed up in the interim.
When the starting line-up was announced, many were dubious. It was a 4-4-2 formation, with Sergio Romero between the sticks and Hugo Campagnaro, Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernandez and Pablo Zabaleta making up the defensive back four. Javier Mascherano and Rodrigo Braña would anchor the midfield, with Maxi Rodriguez and José Sosa taking the wide roles and Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero playing up front.
What are we, England?’ sweaty taxi drivers with shirts unbuttoned to their navels screamed at their radios. ‘Where is the creativity in this midfield? Is Messi supposed to do everything himself?’ Screech. Honk, honk!
And they had a point. Maxi Rodriguez and Sabella favourite, Sosa, are able, useful midfielders, but they lack the creative spark of a Javier Pastore (who was injured for this one), young Erik Lamela (on the bench) or the abundance of other attack-minded players at Sabella’s disposal like Ricky Alvarez, Pablo Aimar, Maxi Moralez and so on and so forth. Was it necessary to use two defensive pit bulls like Mascherano and Braña against these pampered European ski bunnies, when one would surely be enough to frighten them back to their mountain chateaus? Breaking up the fabulous Agüero, Messi, Higuain attacking trident-dubbed ‘Higgy Smalls’ by me- and leaving the latter on the bench also seemed an unnecessarily conservative move.
‘Relax,’ The Sloth assured everybody, languidly chewing on a coca leaf and gazing at a ladybug crawling up the wall for five minutes between each sentence. ‘The important thing at this stage is to work on a defensive line that is solid and consistent.’ Masticate. Stare at bug. Smile serenely. ‘We don’t need to worry about our attack.’
The press grumbled, but admitted that he had a good argument. Still, nobody could see the point of Sosa, and the debutant at right back, Campagnaro, is 31 for chrissakes, where is the future in that?
Once Argentina’s team bus had arrived at the ground, approximately four minutes before kick-off, and the players had slapped on their uniforms and dashed out into the middle where their opponents had been standing in perfect formation for the past hour, the match was able to get underway, punctual enough to keep the capacity crowd from frowning disapprovingly, as the Swiss are wont to do when they are apoplectic.
From the outset, Argentina found it easy to maintain possession, stroking the ball about comfortably. Fears that Messi would be isolated were not allayed, however, as the Barcelona Pocket God was forced to retreat back to the centre circle in order to feel the ball at his feet.
There’s a reason opposition players fight over Messi’s shirt after matches, however, and on 20 minutes he conjured up a very Barcelona-esque goal with a little help from Kun Agüero. Receiving the ball on the right with half the Swiss team in front of him… well you know the rest, you’ve seen it a hundred times. Scamper, scamper, scamper, one-two, bang. Sweet as chocolate for Argentina. Bitter as bitter Swiss 70% cocoa chocolate for the Swiss.
This goal seemed to remind Argentina that in theory they have the personnel to mimic Pep Guardiola’s team, and for most of the first half they played Barcelona-style keepsies without giving Switzerland much of a look at the ball. Garay and Fernandez were pillars at the back – perhaps the most encouraging sign to be taken from this match – while Campagnaro and Zabaleta were sound on the flanks without really offering much forward thrust. Sosa and Maxi circulated possession well enough, but offered very little else, with several attacking movements breaking down at their feet.
Braña, who had been commendable at the back of midfield alongside Mascherano, was forced off at half time through injury and replaced by Fernando Gago, a better distributer from deep and a player more likely to trot forward to join attacking moves.
An Argentinian defensive malfunction early in the second half meant Switzerland were able to equalise. A low cross from the left was scuffed by Erin Derdiyok and the ball dribbled through to Xherdan Shaqiri who had been left unmarked on the right as Zabaleta had drifted in. The young star fired it into the top corner with the accuracy of a crossbow bolt finding the left eye of a tyrannical reeve of Habsburg. Google it, people.
What followed was a better spell for the home side, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Shaqiri troubling the wide defenders Campagnaro and Zabaleta with their pace.
Messi had a quiet period, which, when he plays for Barcelona, is less noticeable as the likes of Xavi and Iniesta take up the slack. Here, Sosa and Maxi just showed they are not particularly useful in unlocking defences.
However, like Michael Jordan when he played for the Bulls (not so much with the Wizards or the White Sox), Messi tends to find a whole new level of brilliance in the home stretch, as if he has been allowing the other 21 players on the pitch to dawdle about until he decides it’s time to swoop down from his ethereal plane and nonchalantly decide the outcome of the match.
With two minutes of normal time remaining, Argentina forced a turnover and Messi was unleashed. He ghosted past Philippe Senderos like Mehmet Ali Ağca past the Pontifical Swiss Guards and delightfully chipped over the keeper, onto the crossbar and in.
Then Higuain, who had come on to replace Agüero, won a penalty in extra time, and Messi dispatched that as well with practiced ease, like Roger Federer slaying a one-handed cross court backhand or Martina Hingis hoovering a line of coke, for his first international hat-trick.
He now moves to equal fifth on Argentina’s all-time scorer’s chart, alongside Leopoldo Luque and bloody Daniel Passarella, who was a bloody centreback for crying out loud. He sits just twelve goals behind Diego Maradona on the all-time list (still a healthy 34 behind Batistuta). But this is supposed to be about what we learned, and we all knew Messi is the cat’s pyjamas.
Argentina’s defence was decent, despite the one glaring error. Zabaleta was not fantastic, but he is experienced, reasonably young and can play on either flank so he is the best option around at the moment. Campagnaro doesn’t have youth on his side, however, so there seems little point in keeping him on. Sabella is yet to find someone who can fill that role adequately, so his only choice is to keep trying different players until somebody stakes a claim for the permanent job.
Sabella could argue that having a player like Sosa or Maxi Rodriguez in his midfield to do the running is necessary; but having both at the same time seems like overkill. Messi was able to do it all on his own in this match, but asking him to do it all, every game, is not a smart policy.
The Selección’s next Qualifier is not until June, so The Sloth has plenty of time to think about his options. Speaking of time, I wonder if he used this trip to pick up one of those stylish, precise watches that the Swiss are so famous for.
Oh, f**ksticks, I didn’t even mention the cheese.
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