Promising Argentina in fine fettle
Argentina arrive in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Monday after bidding farewell to their fans on Saturday with a routine 2-0 win over Slovenia in La Plata, Argentina. Ricardo "Ricky" Alvarez and Lionel Messi provided the goals in a dominant performance, and while not everything is exactly as manager Alejandro Sabella would like it, things are looking good so far in the preparations.
The match brought a promising performance from an Argentina side that was trying out its 3-5-2 system, the fallback if Sabella feels the normal 4-3-3 will leave the side too exposed. There was an early scare when Lucas Biglia picked up a knock, which meant Javier Mascherano had to move into midfield -- he'd played the opening minutes as something of a libero, stepping out from the back into midfield -- but Biglia will apparently be fit.
The second-half introduction of Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria cheered the crowd and eventually provided the second goal, with Aguero heading down for Messi to slam the ball home and move one closer to Gabriel Batistuta's record of 56 goals for the national side. (He is currently second, on 38.)
What Sabella would probably like to change is that a few players are going into the opening World Cup match against Bosnia-Herzegovina without a run-out in either friendly to their names. Gonzalo Higuain, Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay have been kept out of both friendlies with injuries. While all are expected to be fit to play on Sunday -- Garay and Higuain in particular seem to have been kept out against Slovenia as a precaution more than anything -- it would have been nice to give them some game time ahead of the main event.
There were decent performances throughout, though, and one small moment of history; River Plate youngster Emanuel Mammana, training with the under-20 side that is providing partners for the full side, was given a run-out due to some of the injuries at the back. Mammana replaced Mascherano and, like the current Barcelona man, has now played a full international before making his league debut for River Plate -- although he has featured for the first team as part of a reserve lineup in the Copa Argentina, a competition that didn't exist when Mascherano broke through.
Mammana won't be called upon in Brazil, but he is one example of a bright future for Argentina in the long term. For now, though, it's the short term that matters. Bring on Brazil.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.