Lessons from Argentina's warm-ups
With under 48 hours until the waiting ends and the World Cup finally begins, it's difficult to escape the excitement that the tournament's opening day will bring. Well, it is in my living room anyway.
For the most part Argentines are looking forward to Sunday, when their own side get underway, far more than the start of the tournament in itself. (This is perhaps partly because Wednesday afternoon will see a crucial second division promotion tie-breaker that will define whether troubled club Independiente return to the Primera División or not).
With the friendlies now done and dusted and the side having touched down in Belo Horizonte -- they're staying at Atlético Mineiro's training complex throughout the tournament -- the hard work begins in earnest. But what, if anything, have we learned from Argentina's pre-World Cup friendlies?
About the true make-up of the team, the key figures and the tactics likely to be employed, the two friendlies -- a 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in Buenos Aires and a 2-0 win over Slovenia in La Plata -- have confirmed what we already knew rather than taught us anything new. Without Pablo Zabaleta, they're pedestrian at right back; all the same, the team's almost as comfortable in a 3-5-2 as in a 4-3-3. Oh, and Lionel Messi is quite a handy player.
None of these are earth-shattering revelations, of course. Marcos Rojo has looked dynamic -- particularly on Saturday when he played at left wing-back in the 3-5-2 against Slovenia -- and given that he's the team's clear weakest link, that has to be encouraging. Rojo has apparently had a fine season for Sporting in Portugal; if he can continue to replicate that form he might prove a few doubters (this correspondent included, I admit) wrong.
Another point driven home during that win over Slovenia was just how much of a difference the main attackers make. Wary of the spate of injuries that had ruled out big players from several other major nations in the days before the friendly, Alejandro Sabella sent out a highly experimental lineup against Slovenia. They dominated all the same, but playing at half pace, 1-0 up early on, and conserving energy, it was all a bit dull.
Then with half an hour to go Sabella sent on three substitutes that any manager in the world would love to make: Maxi Rodríguez, Ricky Álvarez and Ezequiel Lavezzi came off to be replaced by Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Lionel Messi. The pace of the attack changed instantly and Messi added the second late on. If we already knew these players were lethal attackers, it's encouraging to see them functioning well even without Gonzalo Higuaín added to the mix.
Higuaín will probably be fit for the opening game against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday having upped his intensity in training on Tuesday. Ezequiel Garay returned to full training that same day, as did Pablo Zabaleta. Little by little, Argentina's full side is starting to take shape and if they can build as they should on some understated but decent friendly performances, things should be looking good.