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Mar 28, 2013

Argentina take big step towards Brazil

Little by little, Argentina are closing in on a World Cup berth for Brazil 2014, and once again in the most recent qualifying double header, they put in performances that to most reasonable viewers were impressive, given the circumstances. Four points from two game - at home to Venezuela and away to Bolivia - is more than any of the other sides managed, and it puts Alejandro Sabella's side on the brink of qualification.

No-one's getting excited just yet - well, no more so than usual in what is admittedly a rather excitable country where football's concerned - but the improvements compared with Argentina's last qualifying campaign are clear. In qualifying for South Africa 2010 under Diego Maradona, Argentina took it right to the wire, with late winners in both their last two games eventually seeing them through by the slimmest of margins.

This time round, the story is different. In the next double header, in June, Argentina host Colombia and then travel to Ecuador. If results elsewhere go their way, it's possible that they can assure at least the play-off place by beating Colombia, and even automatic qualification if they follow that up by avoiding defeat in Quito, with three games still to go.

Although it's not fair to judge Diego Maradona's time at the helm with too much reference to the record-equalling 6-1 defeat the last time Argentina played in La Paz (plenty of good teams have lost away to Bolivia before, and plenty more will in the future), the contrast in the performances between that showing in 2009 and this week was telling. Sabella's decision to play a 5-3-2 against Bolivia upset some pundits, as if it was a demeaningly defensive (and therefore less legitimate) formation for Argentina to use. Never mind that it's pretty much the formation with which Carlos Bilardo got the best out of Maradona the player in 1986.

Come full time in La Paz, though, it was Sabella who was looking like he'd made the best decision. Argentina fell behind midway through the first half, when Marcelo Martins headed past Sergio Romero to give Bolivia a deserved lead, but Ever Banega, of all people, headed an equaliser right before the break. Banega's a fine player who ensured Fernando Gago's absence through injury wasn't noticed, but he's hardly a midfielder one expects to see popping up in the opposing penalty box to score with a header from open play.

At half time, Argentina presumably took on a bit of oxygen - after emerging a few minutes late from the break, they were much improved, and certain players were somewhat livelier - and could have won the game right at the death, with Bolivian keeper Sergio Galarza rushing out to smother a one-on-one with Lionel Messi who, looking a little heavy-legged, couldn't lift it over the goalkeeper in the manner we're so accustomed to seeing. Still, 1-1 is a fine result to take away from Bolivia.

Ángel Di María and Rodrigo Palacio earned plenty of admiring glances for their running throughout ('How many lungs has Di María got?' asked Olé after the match), and goalkeeper Sergio Romero made a couple of superb saves with the game still at 0-0. Messi was more subdued; he clearly doesn't enjoy the altitude, having said before the game that his memories of 2009 were "taking a short sprint and being left gasping for air". He wasn't too lively this time either, but was well enough after the game to rubbish reports during the second half that he'd spent the break vomiting copiously, and almost hadn't been able to come out for the second period.

Messi is allowed the occasional ordinary game for Argentina these days, though, because for the last 15 months now he's been superb virtually every time he's turned out for his nation. A few days earlier he'd been at the heart of another impressive Argentine performance, as they took on and won 3-0 against a Venezuelan side who were well organised and defensively disciplined in Buenos Aires. I was lucky enough to be at that one, and apart from the visitors' near-perfect defensive positioning throughout (Argentina's left back in La Paz, Clemente Rodríguez, could certainly take a few tips or two - he was a liability in the first half against Bolivia, and the hosts' goal came from a cross originating from his flank), it was the Argentine attack which once again impressed.

That was notable because Sergio Agüero was missing with injury and Di María suspended. They were replaced, respectively, by Ezequiel Lavezzi and Walter Montillo, the latter a name not likely to be familiar to European fans, but well known to Brazilians, who saw him become one of the most heralded playmakers in the league with Cruzeiro before he joined Neymar at Santos at the start of this year. Messi was key, scoring a penalty and setting up both of Gonzalo Higuaín's goals - although the second of which was actually offside by a tight margin. Messi's run prior to his pass for that one, however, was right out of his personal scrap book, and included an opposing midfielder trying to tackle him but managing to kick only air on the halfway line shortly after he first set off.

I wanted to give Venezuela a quick mention, as well - Tim Vickery's already praised them but I too was impressed, both against Argentina for their discipline even in defeat, and in what I saw of the win against Colombia on Tuesday night. The chance of a first ever World Cup appearance is very real.

As Uruguay and Paraguay, the two finalists of the last Copa América, struggle, Argentina are ticking along nicely. They might not have confirmed their place in Brazil just yet, but it's not far off. And with glimpses that they have options beyond just their first choice of terrifying attackers, it's going to be a lot of fun seeing what they're capable of now they have a proper manager in charge. No offence, Diego, but I'd rather watch Alex Sabella's Argentina any day.

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