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Batista’s last throw of the dice

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It was said this week that if everyone in Argentina had put their views on the national football team to paper the Amazon would no longer be standing.

It is probably just as well for the eco-system that the ferocious conversation in the nation’s cafes rattle along at a speed no author could match. In a country where the salt shaker and sugar bowl are used just as much as tactical props as for seasoning and sweetening, the last week has produced a torrent of painful debate.

The opening stage of the Copa America is often just an ice-breaker to the real competition, with eight of the 12 sides progressing to the quarter-finals. For Argentina on home soil it should have been nothing more than a procession round the provinces before the real stuff started. Instead, two games and two draws against Bolivia and Colombia later, a national crisis looms.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the coverage has surrounded Leo Messi and his struggles to recreate his best form in an Argentine jersey.

Criticism of Messi’s performances at international level in the past have often been overstated. He was excellent in this competition four years ago, instrumental as Argentina won Olympic gold in Beijing, and far better in his role as a facilitator last summer’s World Cup than many who didn’t look beyond the scoresheet gave him credit for.

However, against Colombia on Wednesday evening he looked as lost and bereft as he ever has on a football pitch. And he wasn’t alone. Argentina were incredibly lucky to escape with a point as Colombia missed two glorious opportunities when presented with an open goal in the first-half and were denied on multiple occasions by goalkeeper Sergio Romero in the second. The centre-back pairing of Gabriel Milito and Nicolas Burdisso provided as many assists to the Colombian frontline as Los Cafeteros own midfield did, the midfield three of Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega looked devoid of creativity and lacking in ideas, whilst on either side of Messi, Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi were industrious at best.

In fairness to Tevez and Lavezzi they are not being played in their natural positions. Obsessed with the Barcelona model in the year leading up to the tournament, coach Sergio Batista said he would build his side around Messi in the Catalans distinctive 4-3-3 formation. The problem is that while the lead role may be played by the same character, the supporting cast doesn’t come close.

None of the midfield three have a fraction of the vision of Xavi Hernandez, nor the inclination to move beyond the ball like Andres Iniesta. Tevez and Lavezzi don’t provide the same movement cutting inside as a Pedro Rodriguez or David Villa. Most crucially of all, however, Argentina don’t get any width from their full-backs.

Against Colombia, Batista started with Javier Zanetti and Tevez on the left, meaning there was no naturally left-footed player on that side of the field. As a result it became easy for the Colombian defence to push any threat down that side inside into the congested central area.

In tournament football years worth of plans can go down the drain in a matter of minutes. For Batista – after refusing to change after the Bolivia game – it has taken 180 minutes to realise his mistakes. A much changed side including Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria will start in a must win match against Costa Rica this evening.

Messi will not be operating in the false nine position he has to devastating effect at club level, but should have better options ahead of him in a 4-2-3-1 with Di Maria providing some much-needed width on the left.

It is a plan B that simply must work if the hosts are to avoid the ultimate embarrassment. Their opponents are a Costa Rica side consisting heavily of under-23 players, but one strong enough to do what Argentina couldn’t in handily disposing of Bolivia 2-0 in their last outing.

Fail to win and the talk in the water holes of Argentina may not solely focus on Messi. With Batista’s position untenable, the possible return of Diego Maradona as manager would strike fondly in the hearts of many followers of La Albiceleste.

Written by Kieran Canning

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