Sampaoli off to winning start but World Cup battle ahead for Argentina coach
Argentina may have arrived late at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for their friendly with Brazil, but a 1-0 win to kick off the Jorge Sampaoli era ahead of a crucial World Cup qualifying battle was a big boost.
Sampaoli has taken over a team struggling badly in the race to Russia -- fifth in the standings and facing the prospect of a playoff unless they turn their campaign around.
Beating Brazil, then, provided a morale lift. Just as importantly, with next to no time on the training ground, the outgoing Sevilla manager has already managed to impose himself on the team.
He began with a back three -- though the side was a little more conservative than the one he began training with earlier in the week. Nicolas Otamendi, Jonatan Maidana and matchwinner Gabriel Mercado played across the back, with Alejandro Gomez at right wing-back, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega holding the centre and Angel Di Maria wide on the other flank. The attacking trident was composed of Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala operating behind centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain.
Anxious to rest key players and also promote competition for places, Brazil had only taken four first-choice players: Chinese Super League-based midfield duo Paulinho and Renato Augusto, Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus and Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho, who began wide on the right. Coutinho then switched to the left and ended up further infield. The defensive unit was made up entirely of reserves -- goalkeeper Weverton, Fagner, Thiago Silva, Gil and Filipe Luis across the backline, protected by Fernandinho, with Willian gaining a recall wide on the left.
Both teams began pressing furiously. In a condensed match, there was little space down the middle. Messi and Dybala struggled to combine, while Brazil found it difficult to play their way through the centre. But they did manage two glorious moments when quick interplay got them behind the Argentina line down the flanks. The first was a four-man move down the right which ended with Renato Augusto shooting wide. In the second, Willian was sprung down the left. He could have shot but passed square to Coutinho, who was denied by a combination of Otamendi and goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina, though, held the balance of the game. Banega was the most influential figure in midfield, and he served as a supply line for Di Maria, who continually found space down the left against Brazil's full-back Fagner.
The goal came from a corner won on that side of the field. It was taken back to Di Maria, whose cross undid a Brazil defence that had drifted towards the near post. Otamendi's header came back off the woodwork and Mercado put in the rebound from close range. Hardly a glamorous player and not over-blessed with talent, Mercado has the knack of getting on the scoresheet.
Amazingly, after Messi, he is Argentina's joint top scorer in World Cup qualification. But he has played just six of the 14 matches and only has two goals. The fact that no-one has more is an indication of how poorly the team have been playing, aside from Messi, and how much work Sampaoli will have to put in to get them right.
The new coach did not have it all his own way in his first match, though, and he made a change early in the second half which might have cost them the win. Willian and Coutinho swapped flanks at the interval, and with Di Maria tiring, Argentina's new coach seemed concerned at the amount of space Willian was enjoying down the right. He brought on a left-back, Nicolas Tagliafico, and switched to an orthodox back four. The problem was that with fewer players in midfield, it was harder to stop the Brazilian moves at source.
Suddenly, Brazil had more space to work the ball through the middle and with one pass, Fernandinho took out both Maidana and Otamendi, exposing their lack of pace as Jesus latched onto the ball and rounded goalkeeper. An equaliser seemed certain but Jesus, perhaps trying to eliminate any chance of his City teammate Otamendi making a block on the line, went to slide the ball inside the near post and hit the woodwork instead. The rebound fell to Willian, who blasted against the other post.
Sampaoli quickly realised his mistake and sent on defensive midfielder Guido Rodriguez to plug the gap. The game then petered out in a sequence of stoppages for substitutions and fouls as he got off to a winning start.
Though Tite experienced defeat as coach of Brazil for the first time, he has a World Cup to plan for; Sampaoli still has to steer Argentina through qualification, starting with a difficult trip to Uruguay at the end of August.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.