All eyes were on Argentina in this round of qualifiers. After the disastrous Copa Centenario final loss against Chile and the fiasco that ensued with Messi’s supposed international retirement and AFA’s self-destruction, everyone awaited this game to see how Argentina would fare under their newly appointed, “not-first-choice” coach Edgardo Bauza.
So how did they do? Well, considering it was a debut game under a new coach, coming back from a chaotic morale-destructive summer, playing against arch-rivals Uruguay, in a physical game, with 10 men down for the entire second half, being the better side, clean sheet, winning 1-0… i’d say pretty good!
Bauza fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation: Romero in goal; the now familiar Funes Mori and Otamendi as center backs (where in the world is Garay?), Zabaleta taking back his right-back position, Emanuel Mas as left-back; Mascherano and Biglia the two DM’s; Up front with Di Maria on the left, Messi on the right, Dybala down the middle; Debutant Pratto up front as the #9.
Argentina started very positively, and i must say i was impressed from the get go. There were many noticeable improvements to their game:
First off, in the first half with 11 men, you could finally feel a sense of comfort in possession, passing the ball around well with better accuracy and much less needless giveaways. The players were much closer to each other, always giving each other options and making themselves available for the pass. Their game was more fluid, the players continuously moving and getting into favorable positions, looking for space and constantly stretching the Uruguayan defense. Their off-the-ball movement was excellent.
Above all, the best improvement was the great link-up between midfield and attack, the lack of which was a huge frustration under Martino where they always looked so disjointed and ineffective. Messi tracked back and was more involved in the final third, having much more of the ball in favorable positions, with his face towards goal and teammates providing him with options running into space. If it wasnt Messi play making, it was Dybala, or Di Maria, or Mascherano from deep (!). The play was more direct, especially down the middle with well-timed chipped in balls for players running at the offside line.
During possession, the full backs came forward adding numbers in midfield and giving options up front when possible. Im not sure if Uruguay initially planned to play so defensively and physically, but Argentina forced them on their back foot the whole time. Argentina played with intensity, pressuring from high up the field, not allowing Uruguay to keep possession for too long. Suarez and Cavani were isolated up front, desperately attempting individual skill (or shooting from the half way line) rather than team work to enter the box, simply because they couldn’t pass the ball. Credit to Argentina’s defense and DM’s for closing them down.
Messi’s goal was pure genius, instinctively catching a rebounded ball with his back heel, finding himself crowded by defenders (a familiar sight), slowing down, turning round and taking a shot at goal from outside the box. With that many players in front of him, the ball was bound to hit someone, and it did, luckily deflecting goal-bound and leaving Muslera paralyzed and helplessly watching it roll into the back of the net. It was a special moment for the blonde hero, rushing to celebrate with the crowd after his retirement “hiatus”, not that he missed a game, but fans all over were definitely pleased to see him back scoring winners for Argentina, yet again.
Moments later at the very end of the first half, Dybala got his second yellow and was harshly sent off. The referee ruined Argentina’s momentum at that point, forcing them to change their game in the second half. Personally, i was obviously mad about the decision, but at the same time i was very interested to see how Bauza would react at half time, given the circumstances. The task was obvious: maintain the lead. Under Martino we had grown accustomed to being out-coached in the 2nd half, and so this was an important test for Bauza to prove his mettle.
Surely enough, despite being a man down, Bauza’s men impressed: Lining up in a 4-4-1 formation, with Messi up front alone for most parts, with Pratto and Di Maria tracking back to defend down the right and left, respectively. Going forward they ran their socks off, and when out of possession (although seeing much of it), they systematically tracked back. We saw Mascherano all over the pitch, and interestingly, in many cases in very advanced positions up front near Messi, applying pressure high up the field. Understandably Argentina didnt get the better chances, nor did they allow 11-man Uruguay any good chances either. All in all, they defended well, cleared most crosses, crowded every shot and frustrated Uruguay’s attack with the offside trap.
In terms of individual performances, here are some points in random order:
– 32 year old Mascherano was a beast, clearly the man of the match. He was everywhere, martial-ling both defense and midfield, sending excellent long balls in as well as uncharacteristically moving up front at times.
– Emanuel Mas impressed as left back and it remains to be seen if Rojo will take his place again.
– Dybala linked up well with Messi and it’s disappointing that we wont get to see them together again in the next game due to his red card. Unlucky to be sent off, and also unlucky that his shot hit the post and then somehow defied the laws of physics to rebound off Muslera and over the goal instead of in it.
– Lucas Pratto had a quiet game as he didnt get much service up front where Uruguay made it very tight.
– Lucas Alario came on in his place and showed better ball control and composure with the ball, but unfortunately he only played in the 2nd half where he had to play deep in midfield. Hopefully we’ll see more of the two Lucas’ in the next game.
– Di Maria was probably the weakest link up front as he had a bad game, but his inconsistency has become a bit too familiar. Personally i’d prefer to see Lamela in his place, though in the second half with a man down, Angel was the right choice as he can be a player and a half with his abnormal energy and endurance.
– Biglia (another Lucas) did his job well, filling all the gaps behind Mascherano’s constant movement and doing a lot of dirty work.
– Zabaleta had a decent game, though im still not quite sold on him starting ahead of Mercado who was immense in the last few qualifiers. It will be interesting to see how they compete for the right back position in the future.
– The center backs, Otamendi and Funes Mori, were exceptional and almost flawless, doing very well to keep world class strikers like Suarez and Cavani at bay.
– The goalkeeper Romero had a great game as well… always so confident and assuring between the posts. He wasnt tested much but did well to parry the few balls that came at him.
– As for Messi… one word, he was Messious. Cant think of a better word to describe him, that should be a word!
So overall it was a dream start for Edgardo Bauza in a tough match. Argentina’s win puts them outright top of the CONMEBOL WC Qualifiers table with 14 points. However this is no reason to relax, had they drawn they would have been left in 7th place with 12 points (out of the World Cup), behind Brazil (5th) and Paraguay (6th) considering goal difference and goals scored (see the WCQ table here). That’s how tight the competition is. Despite a horrible start to the campaign (a loss and 2 draws), this is Argentina’s 4th consecutive win since, and their next game is on Tuesday away to last placed Venezuela who have lost every single game so far except one (an away draw to Peru). Obviously Argentina are expected to win this one and further separate themselves from some other teams in the pack once the next round ends.
With caution, i say this: Things are looking good for Argentina again, let’s hope Bauza continues to impress… VAMOS ARGENTINA!
Enjoy extended highlights of yesterday’s match below: