There are two different Argentina teams: the one with Lionel Messi and the one without.
Argentina can breathe a sigh of relief. Lionel Messi was back in action on Saturday, scoring in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over La Coruna. There are plenty more games coming up – starting of course, with Wednesday’s reunion with Pep Guardiola when Manchester City come to town. It is a match which new Argentina boss Edgardo Bauza will be watching – and maybe wincing as well. He could be forgiven for wanting his star player to be wrapped up in cotton wool until the next FIFA dates in less than a month’s time.
Argentina’s results both with and without Messi make his importance to the team all too clear. Ten rounds of World Cup qualifiers have been played. Messi, struck down by injury, has only featured in three – all wins. The remaining seven have brought just one win, four draws and two defeats (both at home, doubling the number of times Argentina have been beaten on their own soil in qualification history). And next month Argentina visit a resurgent Brazil, who under new coach Tite have gone from sixth place to top of the table in four straight wins. And then they are at home to Colombia – dangerous opponents who appear to have found some form. Even with Messi back on international duty, the qualification table might may very uneasy viewing for Argentines come November 15th.
The top four teams make it through automatically to Russia. The team finishing fifth – where Argentina currently find themselves – will play off against opponents from Oceania. It is true that Argentina are just a point off third place. But a less optimistic reading is that they are just two points clear of seventh, the position currently filled by reigning continental champions Chile. Some are speculating that the battle to finish fifth could come down to a fight between Argentina and Chile, the team who have beaten them on penalties in the final of the Copa America both this year and last.
There is, of course, a long way to go. Sides can suddenly click, or just as swiftly fall to pieces. At the moment, though, Argentina simply do not look like a team – and poor Bauza has no time together with his players to sort it out. And in one sense, his team’s position is even worse than normally assumed. The assumption of an Argentina-Chile face off may well be a lack of respect for Paraguay – and not just because they just beat Argentina last Tuesday.
There are signs that Paraguay might be on to something. They have an interesting generation of attacking midfielders coming through – Derlis Gonzalez, Miguel Almiron and Oscar Romero all started the Argentina game. Coach Francisco Arce said after the game that “we spoke before about this being the moment to do something new, to play some more football and add that to the determination which is part of our DNA.”
These are ambitious words – from a man well aware of the need to get the balance right. A top class international full back in his playing days, Arce took over in July in his second spell as Paraguay coach. The first was a disaster. Gerardo Martino stepped down in 2011 after taking the team to the final of that year’s Copa America – twelve months earlier they had reached the quarter finals of the World Cup for the first time, where they gave eventual champions Spain a scare.
The team needed rebuilding, but Arce tried to move too quickly, and paid the price. Paraguay got off to a disastrous start to the 2014 qualifiers, and ended up on the bottom of the table. Now, following the resignation of Ramon Diaz, he has been given a second chance.
Mistakes have already been made. After a 2-1 win over Chile, Arce was too optimistic when his team visited Uruguay. He went with two strikers and a ball playing midfield – and Uruguay picked them off, waiting for Paraguay to over-commit and then pouncing to win 4-0.
The idea of playing two strikers was retained for the home game against Colombia. “We confused high tempo with rushing, and kept giving the ball away,” said the coach after Colombia had snatched a last minute win. “We lost our shape, and lacked combination play.”
Then against Argentina, with his line of Gonzalez, Almiron and Oscar Romero behind striker Angel Romero, the balance looked better. Arce had found a team capable of hurting Argentina with the ball, especially on the break, but also set up to hold their opponents at bay in traditional Paraguayan style. It could be a formula to lift Paraguay into the qualification places.
They will consider next month’s home game against Peru to be a must-win match. Soon afterwards comes the trip to Bolivia, where the extreme altitude of La Paz means that any points won are a bonus. But Paraguay already have one bonus – they have played Argentina twice (a win and a draw), both times without Lionel Messi, who they will not have to face in this campaign.