Batista gives Argentina cause to wonder
What might have been? It's not two months since Spain won their first world title to continue an utterly dominant spell which had begun with their Euro 2008 triumph. At the same World Cup, Argentina initially sparkled but were ultimately humiliated when the going got tough. Yet now, with a manager who's swept through like a new broom, Argentina are able to not just beat, but demolish, the newly-crowned champions of the world. It makes one wonder.
Spain, of course, were not at full strength, had a long flight down to Buenos Aires (so did the Argentine players, but they came down earlier due to Spain's Euro 2012 qualifier on Friday) and were both relaxed about the friendly fixture and enjoying the tourist experience in the city. All the same, to lose 4-1, and be so comfortably outplayed, is quite something for a side who might not have scored by the bucket load, but were still massively impressive in winning the World Cup in South Africa.
The defeat came, as well, against a team with a caretaker manager. Following the decision not to renew Diego Maradona's contract, youth team boss Sergio Batista was given the job until the end of the year with a chance to get the job permanently if he does well. Last month, talking to a regional radio show, AFA president Julio Grondona said it would take 'some very big difficulties' for Batista not to get the job for a longer period. Getting thrashed by Spain might have seen him lose his chance; handing out a thrashing to Spain is very unlikely to do his prospects any harm.
Spain did hit the woodwork a number of times, but none of those shots were from close range. It wasn't as if the Argentine defence were being carved open time after time - which they surely would have been had these sides met in the World Cup. Argentina were almost unrecognisable from the rabble that went out in such embarrassing fashion to Germany, even allowing for home advantage and the fact that they were clearly more motivated than their opponents. The game started with a long spell of uninterrupted Spanish possession, but the first half thereafter was completely under Argentina's control.
A right back playing at right back, three central midfielders playing in a three-man central midfield, and three of the world's best forwards allowed - by virtue of that balanced midfield - to play at the end of the pitch that they do so brilliantly at, really does make a hell of a difference when set against the disorganisation and bizarre selections of Maradona. Gabriel Milito was superb on his comeback, while Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso also produced solid performances as they were welcomed back into the fold - although one fan behind me insisted on yelling abuse at Cambiasso throughout, largely without apparent reason.
And thus we arrive at the wondering. Spain were thrilled to be in Buenos Aires - the players' Twitter feeds were replete with photos of them training in Boca Juniors' and River Plate's stadia on Sunday and Monday (the latter was where the game was played) - and clearly relaxed with a non-competitive fixture after such a long journey south. But even though they weren't full strength, the squad was packed with recent World Cup winners and Argentina can take heart from the fact that, especially in the first half, the world champions were utterly outplayed.
Argentina closing down the space between their own midfield and defence so effectively was not something we saw much of during the World Cup, but it was apparent on Tuesday. And although the stands were eerily quiet for some spells of the game - pricing the vast majority of fans out of the stadium will do that, although it was reportedly Argentina's most lucrative home friendly ever - the home side played very well when they had the ball, too.
Batista isn't without his detractors in the press. His club record is unspectacular (although of course club and international management are very different beasts) and he oversaw a catastrophic performance in the Sudamericano Under-20 competition earlier this year which saw Argentina's kids - the reigning World Under-20 champions - fail to qualify to defend their crown in Egypt. He's liked by the players, though, and whilst there are one or two odd decisions (persisting with Martín Demichelis at centre back?), that's a far cry from the out-and-out oddities Maradona frequently came up with.
This was Batista's first go at managing a senior international side with a squad of his own choosing. The players he took to Dublin for last month's friendly against Republic of Ireland were picked by Carlos Bilardo after Maradona's departure was confirmed. It's been a promising start. Of course, not every match will feature opposition enjoying a bit of an early-season break, but if Argentina can take this amount of discipline and balance into all their games, they'll be in good stead.
As for Spain, given their attitude towards the match they seem unlikely to be too concerned in the long term. The important stuff - the 4-0 win over Liechtenstein - had already been done, after all. More European teams are likely to visit Argentina before the next World Cup takes place, with the idea of arranging a friendly in Buenos Aires and one in Brazil on FIFA's double international dates. Argentina will be pumped up for those matches so it's not too ridiculous to suggest a few more teams might get thrashed in the coming seasons.
Take nothing away from this Argentine performance though; it was far from perfect, but as the cliche goes you can only beat the team in front of you. And motivated or not, the team in front of them on Tuesday weren't exactly a bad one. Batista suddenly looks a lot closer to getting the manager's job for good. If nothing else, his extended job interview is going magnificently.