Argentina play well in Brazil draw but pressure remains on Gerardo Martino
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Little by little, signs of progress are apparent for Gerardo Martino's Argentina but after Friday night's 1-1 draw at home to Brazil, which leaves them with just two points from a possible nine in South America's World Cup qualification, it was hard to work out whether the glass was half-empty or half-full.
Without Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, Martino knew the stakes were high and given Argentina's sluggish start to qualifying, they were higher than normal for the visit of Brazil. Carlos Tevez and Javier Pastore weren't terminal losses in the days before the game but it helped to exacerbate the feeling before the match that Argentina were walking wounded.
On Saturday, as Buenos Aires basks in sunshine that makes Thursday's match-postponing storm seem like a bad dream, it's tempting to see the team's prospects in a more serene light, too. For the most part, Argentina's performance finally showed us the "idea" Martino talks so much about. Unlike against Ecuador and Paraguay in the first two qualifiers, Argentina on Friday showed purpose and initiative, acting decisively with the ball and playing like a team rather than a collection of individuals.
Unfortunately, the important clause of the above paragraph is "for the most part" because the match hinged on a period early in the second half when the excellent Ever Banega hit the post for Argentina and a few minutes later, right after being introduced, Douglas Costa saw his header hit the crossbar for Brazil. The rebound from Banega's shot bounced to safety, while Costa's rebound was swept in by Lucas Lima for the equaliser.
The margins weren't as simple as the mere bounce of a ball, though; Costa's chance came about because of the change his introduction had sparked; Dunga had removed Ricardo Oliveira, shifting Neymar into the centre so the Barcelona star could get more involved in the game. Gaps soon opened as Argentina tired after a half of high pressing and Brazil exploited them for the equaliser.
It was clear what Dunga was going for with that switch, and the Brazil manager will have been delighted it had such a quick impact. Martino, meanwhile, failed to react quickly enough. He arguably didn't react at all -- Argentina's changes didn't come until the 69th and 80th minutes and when they did, they were largely like-for-like changes. That seems to be a consequence of Martino's stress on system over players, and it doesn't help him turn matches in his favour.
As it was, Argentina recovered well after the Brazilian equaliser and continued to look the more likely team to get a winner. But when the changes came, the substitutes -- first Nicolas Gaitan, and later Erik Lamela and Paulo Dybala -- were unable to operate at the same high level as those they were replacing (respectively: goalscorer Ezequiel Lavezzi, Banega and Gonzalo Higuain).
If Martino had his players rather than his own changes largely to thank for Argentina remaining on top, there are some mitigating points that need to be made.
First, he got the better of Dunga when it came to the starting strategies. Without Pablo Zabaleta to call on and with Brazil's evident threat down the flanks, Lucas Biglia and the indefatigable Angel Di Maria were deployed to protect stand-in right back Facundo Roncaglia. A midfield that looked too deep-lying on paper was given verve by the decision to push Banega further forward; he responded with the sort of form he's shown of late for Sevilla. At centre-back, Ramiro Funes Mori already looks entirely at home with the national side, offering pace in an area of the pitch in which Argentina have sorely lacked for some years.
The other mitigation for Martino is that the changes he had available to him were of course seriously affected by the squad's injury crisis. Had the first-choice attack been available, the equivalent changes might have included Lavezzi coming on if Di Maria was flagging and Higuain replacing Aguero; on Friday, those two nominal substitutes were forced into the starting XI. Martino was working with a weakened squad but got Argentina's best performance since the 2015 Copa America semifinal, when they demolished Paraguay 6-1.
As Martino admitted after the match, the fact remains that they have two points from their opening three qualifiers. Coming up is a tough assignment away to Colombia in the searing early afternoon heat of Barranquilla. Had Argentina managed to beat Brazil, things would look rosier and pressure would have lifted from Martino's shoulders, one suspects. A draw wasn't the worst result, but it means he won't have the safety net of a derby victory to fall back on should Tuesday's game go badly.
If the bad results continue, another factor could increase the pressure on the embattled manager, along with an external force. Rumours in Chile suggest that their Argentine manager Jorge Sampaoli might be about to step down due to boardroom changes within the ANFP (Chilean FA). Those rumours might well come to nothing but Sampaoli gained visibility in his homeland with the Copa America win and if an Argentine manager of his class became available, pressure on Martino would surely only intensify.
"We don't need to look at the table to know we've got to win [Tuesday]," Martino said Friday night.
Is the glass half empty or half full? We'll have a much better idea after that trip to Colombia.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com