Lionel Messi, Argentina on the brink of major tournament humiliation again
It's that time again. Do or die. In or out. Dust off the old cliche about how, from here on out, it's a direct elimination tournament and every game is a final. Because for Argentina it's now a reality. If Lionel Messi and Co. fail to beat Qatar on Sunday night, their Copa America is over with a whimper.
The trophyless drought will extend to 26 years, all the way back to 1993, when Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone led the Albiceleste to the Copa America in Ecuador. It's by some margin the longest streak among footballing superpowers when it comes to continental titles and World Cups. And if you're one of those pedants who wants to point out the two Olympic Gold medals -- don't. They don't count.
It's not that they haven't come close. They were Copa America runners-up on four occasions, and on three of them, including the last two, they lost out on penalty kicks. Then five years ago, at the World Cup, they were beaten by Germany in extra-time in the final. And yet there are Argentines in their mid-twenties who have never seen their country lift a major trophy, despite the fact that, since achieving puberty, they've had Messi lining up for them.
Yes, the elephant in the room: Messi. By the time he turns 32 on Monday, he could be on his way home from the 2019 Copa America. Some birthday, eh? As ever, the haters will use it to undermine his GOAT credentials, and, at least outside of Argentina, it will provide a distraction from a second consecutive summer of failure, after the debacle of Russia 2018.
The uncomfortable part is that this Copa America in some ways is following a similar script to the World Cup a year ago. Argentina went into that tournament having appointed Jorge Sampaoli, a "system coach" who had won the Copa America with Chile and was supposed to limit the "Messi-dependency" with carefully crafted movement, pressing and team play. Even his biggest proponents -- including yours truly -- would have to admit that he might have been the right man but at the wrong time when he was named but, once in Russia, turned into the wrong man at the worst possible time. Argentina were chaotic and disorganized and whatever message he had never seemed to get through. By the time they crashed out, there were murmurs that he was merely a bystander, with the senior players deciding lineup and tactics.
His successor, Lionel Scaloni, was appointed with zero managerial experience and just two years' worth of assistant coaching (both of them, ironically, with Sampaoli). The fact that he technically still on an interim contract -- set to expire after the Copa America -- says even more about the dysfunctionality and difficulties of the Argentine FA.
Scaloni has built a side for the Copa with an eye towards Qatar 2022. He shifted away from familiar veterans, called up loads of newcomers -- both youngsters like Juan Foyth and guys like Matias Suarez, Milton Casco, Guido Pizarro and Rodrigo De Paul, long overlooked by Argentina -- and tried to stabilise the back line while adding some creativity to the midfield.
But at the first hurdle -- Colombia -- Argentina looked like the side of old. The opposition got physical -- as you'd expect in a Copa America game -- and the Albiceleste lost the plot, going down 2-0. Perhaps the more troubling part was Scaloni's reaction.
He made four changes, including dropping veterans Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, and switched from 4-3-3 to 4-4-1-1, with Lautaro Martinez, making his first international start in a competitive game, leading the line and Messi floating behind him. Paraguay have some quality individuals and are not the uber-defensive stereotype of yesteryear under Eduardo Berizzo, but when it comes to a South American war of attrition, they can more than hold their own. Argentina struggled to create anything for nearly an hour, went a goal down on a counter-attack in which no midfield runner was tracked and, after Messi equalised from the spot, needed a Franco Amani penalty save to escape with a point.
The most worrying bit is that, apart from a spell in the second half of the Paraguay game when Sergio Aguero, on at half-time, combined well with Martinez and Messi, they've shown very little in their first 180 minutes of the tournament. And Scaloni's decisions -- from the changes in personnel and formations to the Di Maria for Martinez substitution in the second game, which ended up blunting their attack -- have almost all backfired badly.
Qatar is the quintessential trap game. It's easy to mock, but there's a reason they're the defending Asian champions. They stormed back from two goals down to grab a point against Paraguay and only succumbed to a late, late goal against Colombia in their second group contest. In both matches they have played better than the scoreline suggests.
Scaloni knows these could be his last 90 minutes as Argentina boss. Given his reaction to the initial defeat, it's not unreasonable to expect another 180 degree change in approach for Qatar in the hope of finding whatever magic formula it takes to get Argentina to play like Argentina. Otherwise, the drought will be extended. And the fact that their past two tournaments will have ended not in heartbreak like the previous ones but in humiliation won't make the pain any less severe.