Argentina mix surprisingly good cocktail with just a splash of Messi
RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni looks at his glass, he can wonder all he likes about whether it's half-full or half-empty -- and make an excellent case for both. What he'll have to concede, though, is that whatever liquid is in it looks about as appealing as a brown cocktail, which is what you get when you play bartender without Mr. Boston and with the wrong mix of top-shelf liquor and off-brand, plastic-bottle swill.
Brazil are up next for Argentina after the 2-0 win over Venezuela at the Maracana on Friday, and while the merry band of Albiceleste fans who are bound to rock up to Belo Horizonte will still be belting out the song in which they ask the hosts how it feels to have the daddy pushing them around in their house, at this stage it feels more like bluster and false courage.
Make no mistake about it. Overcoming a Venezuela side that had beaten them 3-1 just three months ago is a step forward, and reaching the Copa America semifinals means something. But it doesn't change the fact that scoring early (and adding a second courtesy of a goalkeeper error) against a team set up to play defend-and-counter and uncomfortable with the ball can give you a false sense of security. Had Lautaro Martinez not conjured up that back heel after 10 minutes, this game could have taken an uncomfortably familiar turn: a frustrated, disjointed Argentina desperately going to the Lionel Messi well hoping for miracles.
Things did not pan out that way, and Scaloni's changes, by and large, seemed to make sense. Juan Foyth reinvented as a right-back -- a role he had never played for Argentina -- meant bolting the door on one flank, losing some attacking verve perhaps but injecting another true defender into the back line. That's something Argentina can use right now given Nicolas Otamendi's ups and downs. It might be worth revisiting against Brazil if, as expected, the Selecao have most of the ball.
Foyth's inclusion also left Argentina tilting to the left flank, which was fine, at least in the first half, since Marcos Acuna -- another newcomer -- was offering width and linking well with Nicolas Tagliafico and, when he wandered over, Messi too. Indeed as a whole, the middle of the park -- with Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul joining Acuna -- looked somewhat balanced, something which hasn't been said about them for some time. But that was against Venezuela; Brazil are a different proposition. And Acuna's needless hack on Darwin Machis at the end of the first half suggests he might not be the answer when it comes to providing the sort of disciplined performance likely to be required against Tite's crew.
At least up front, for the second game running, Scaloni stuck to the same trio: Martinez, Sergio Aguero and, of course, Messi, the sole survivor from the side who lost the World Cup final to Germany here at the Maracana five years ago. Martinez did his bit. Not just with the early moment of genius (made possible by a horrendous Aguero finish which came his way), but also with another bright counter later in the half where he was perhaps too deferential to Messi (hindsight being 20/20, he was probably better off running with it on his own). Throw in tons of sharp, selfless running and it was a good showing from the Inter Milan forward, which is what you'd expect from a 21-year-old lining up alongside two 30-somethings like Messi and Aguero.
The Manchester City striker, in particular, is very much the Argentina version of himself. Yes, there's a difference between having Pep Guardiola on the bench directing you and a guy like Scaloni, whose interim contract expires at the end of this tournament and has about as much technical area presence as a substitute's bib. And while you don't see Aguero for long stretches, if something good happens he's usually involved -- even though, ironically, both Argentina goals came from Aguero miscues that fell kindly to a teammate.
Which brings us to Messi. Critics will say he had a quiet game, and that might have been down to Venezuela ensuring he was escorted around the pitch at all times. Indeed, the boo-birds in the Argentine media were at it early in the postmatch news conference, prompting a pleading Scaloni to say that, "If you only could see everything he does on the pitch, everything he does in the dressing room, if you did, you'd change your mind."
Messi, like his manager, is himself in the glass half-full/half-empty situation right now. He had two flashes toward the end of each half -- a clever pass to Acuna, who laid on a cross that Martinez just failed to put away, and a nice ball for Angel Di Maria -- and if you're judging attacking output, that's not much by his standards. But he offered little things that made the difference. Dragging opponents out of position to clear passing lanes. Pressing -- in his own way, at his own pace, but with remarkable intensity -- late in the game, after 90 minutes in the thick, sweaty soup that passes for a Rio winter. And, at one point, during a rare period of sustained Venezuelan pressure, taking off at full pace down the flank, knowing it would end with the inevitable almighty whack, which it did, with Yangel Herrera poleaxing him into next month. It was classic "take-one-for-the-team" behavior.
And the operative word here is "team." Argentina looked like one against Venezuela, rather than the insecure, frazzled Messi-dependent collective we saw earlier in the tournament. Maybe not a particularly good team -- or one that has everything figured out -- but a group that by and large looked balanced and even confident. So much so that Messi didn't need to be Xbox Messi on the day and Argentina still found their way at the Maracana.
False dawn? Maybe. Goodness knows there are still so many incongruities and inconsistencies in Scaloni's setup that it could all come tumbling down in Belo Horizonte. But the fact that Argentina looked like a unit for the first time in a long while and Messi was more hard hat than top hat, suggests that Scaloni's brown cocktail might just taste better than it looks.