Awayday eases mangerial pressure
At 18:45 on Tuesday in Buenos Aires, and at the same time among the Argentine press contingent in the stadium in Barranquilla where Argentina were playing Colombia, the knives were being sharpened for Alejandro Sabella. The manager - whose appointment mere months ago was seen as a welcome return to sanity after the 'leadership' of Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista - had packed a team with players he knew from his time at Estudiantes de La Plata, and after an even start to the match, his side had conceded a goal to a deflected free kick on the stroke of half time.
Sabella's competitive reign started well, with a 4-1 demolition of Chile, before Argentina fell to their first ever loss to Venezuela in Caracas days later. A month on, with the chance to set things right, the side faced two very different challenges: a Bolivian side who look comfortably the worst in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group, followed on Tuesday by a trip to Colombia, who'd picked a venue and kickoff time to ensure the least comfortable conditions for the visitors.
The 1-1 draw with Bolivia was not greeted with hearty applause, it's fair to say. Complaints that Sabella was too negative had rung out even during the dismantling of Chile, so when he put out a team who played as if they'd been tranquilised, and gave away a ridiculous goal when Martin Demichelis was well beaten for pace by Marcelo Martins, things weren't looking up.
Ezequiel Lavezzi saved the day, scoring with his first touch after coming off the bench just moments earlier, and Argentina finished strongly. Even so, everyone knew Colombia away wouldn't be easy, even less so with a back four who'd never played together before, and a midfield quite visibly set up to try and contain the game (Javier Mascherano, Rodrigo Brana and Pablo Guinazu are all, in essence, holding midfielders) in light of the climatic conditions. They did that well during the first half, until a free kick from Dorlan Pabon - no, I haven't made that name up - deflected off Mascherano and into the net on the stroke of half time, to give Colombia a 1-0 lead.
The lack of dynamism in Argentina's midfield was a concern, but the main sticking point was that following Nicolas Burdisso's knee injury and his replacement with Estudiantes centre back Leandro Desabato, there were no fewer than five players (Brana, Desabato, Federico Fernandez, Clemente Rodriguez and Jose Sosa) who'd played under Sabella at Estudiantes. Clemente - now at Boca Juniors - is as good as any of the options at left back, and Fernandez is a welcome introduction to a team in need of freshening up in central defence, but the other three are a long way from the quality needed at international level.
Since taking charge of Argentina, Sabella's stuck with players he knows to a disproportionate degree, which is understandable given that he knows their limitations and strengths, and knows they'll do what he asks of them. But at some point soon he surely has to realise that the insistence on using, say, Sosa over Javier Pastore, or Brana over Fernando Gago or ever Banega, hampers his side. With the next qualifier not until June, he's got time to work that out, but it was clear at the break that more movement between the lines was going to be needed in the second half.
Fortunately for Argentina, if Sabella's initial selection was suspect, his changes during the game (apart perhaps from Desabato replacing Burdisso in the first half) were spot on. At half time Sergio Aguero came on for Pablo Guinazu, and Sosa moved to the left. Now 4-3-2-1 rather than 4-4-1-1, with the Manchester City forward joining Lionel Messi behind Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina linked up better, kept the ball better, and started to look a lot more confident at precisely the stage of the game many had expected their energy to start sapping in the tropical heat and humidity.
On the hour mark, Sosa - who hadn't played well, and ended the game having given the ball away more than anyone else on the pitch - exchanged passes with Messi and put in a low cross which Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina couldn't hold, and which Messi stabbed in. With six minutes left, Aguero got the winner. After the match, he explained: "After I came on, the team attacked more." Not the most modest way of putting it, perhaps, but chronologically speaking - and probably causally, as well - he was right. Argentina's reaction in the second half was, if not perfect, at least more similar to how fans and commentators here would like to see their national team playing.
It's an especially important result, from Sabella's point of view, because a defeat wouldn't have been quickly wiped from the memory. The loss to Venezuela a month ago came with more matches soon to come, but had Argentina lost and played poorly throughout in Barranquilla, the hangover would have lasted rather longer, with the next qualifier - at home to Ecuador - not until June 2012.
As it is, Argentina now sit joint top, on seven points (two wins, one draw and one defeat) - although continental champions Uruguay have a game in hand, having been the team who sat out the most recent round. Former whipping boys Venezuela also have seven points, as if to prove they could push the traditional powers all the way this time. Chile, on six along with Ecuador, seem strong at home but very vulnerable away after their 2-0 home win over Paraguay, but for now all eyes are on Argentina's performance in Colombia.
"It was a spectacular reaction [to falling behind]," man-of-the-match Lionel Messi told the TV cameras afterwards. Aguero agreed: "This result turns a page for the team." Sabella may have to get a few more wins under his belt before the press here really start to believe that, but for the moment, a press pack who expect every match to bring a win will be a lot more manageable for him than they might have been.
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