South America’s World Cup qualifiers will kick off early next month without a single member of the Barcelona ‘MSN’ forward line. Neymar of Brazil and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez are suspended, and at the weekend Argentina’s Lionel Messi picked up a new injury which will probably keep him out of all four rounds played this year, including November’s visit of Brazil.
Might a huge blow for Argentina coach Gerardo Martino turn into an opportunity for Carlos Tevez?
Now back at Boca Juniors, Tevez was on imperious form on Sunday in his team’s 3-0 win over Banfield. He scored the third goal and was the outstanding player on the field, continually showing his strength back to goal and his capacity to bring team-mates into the play.
He has rarely looked as commanding for the national team. Indeed, his Argentina record is not even mediocre; for someone who classes himself as a centre forward, 13 goals in 74 games is a desperately disappointing return (to be compared with the record of Sergio Aguero – 32 in 68 – or Gonzalo Higuain, just dropped from the squad, who has 26 goals in 52 games).
Part of the problem surely lies in his relationship with Messi, in technical and psychological terms. The two are very different characters, whose on-field chemistry has never looked strong. With his poor boy upbringing and association with Boca, Tevez has long been a mass idol, ‘the player of the people,’ and there were rumours that he did not react well to the rise of the Messi phenomenon. This would seem to be at the root of his absence from the national team between 2011 and late last year.
Already the other side of 30, Tevez was brought back into the squad by Gerardo Martino. One of the reasons, surely, was that by this stage there was nothing left to squabble about. It was clear to all and sundry that Messi was king of the hill. Indeed, over the past few months Tevez has not complained about being on the bench. To be fair, he has done little to justify his recall – playing 10 games but starting only 2 of them, not scoring and making little impression. Indeed, with a talented generation of strikers coming through, one wondered whether it made much sense to keep him in the squad. Suddenly, it makes very visible sense.
While Messi was around, Tevez was surplus to requirements. Not only are Messi and Aguero better players, they are also a better combination. Without Messi, Tevez suddenly takes on much more importance. For a start, there is space for him in the team. And his presence will have an effect on the atmosphere. When Argentina kick off at home to Ecuador on October 8th, the fans will flock to see him. True, Argentina use River Plate’s stadium for their big home matches, but one end of the ground is likely to be full of Boca fans. They will forgive him anything – he has escaped punishment for a nasty looking tackle which broke the leg of Ezequiel Ham of Argentinos Juniors in a recent league game.
Tevez may not make it all the way to the next World Cup. He will be 34 at Russia 2018, and faces competition from the likes of Angel Correa, Pablo Dybala, Luciano Vietto and Mauro Icardi. But while he is starring for Boca he has the wind in his sails. It will be fascinating to see how far it can carry him as he tries not to blow this late chance at international glory.