A competition for the people would be an apt way to describe Argentina’s approach to this year’s competition. Dropping well known cathedrals of football to host this summer’s tournament in favour of the lesser known church’s.
The heartbeat of Argentine football, Buenos Aires, which currently has 13 of the 20 Primera Division teams will contribute only one venue, El Monumental, which will host the final. Having just one representative from a city that can boast Boca Juniors, River Plate, Indepentiente, Racing and San Lorenzo is quite a break from the norm. The likes of Jujuy, Salta, Mendoza and San Juan will take centre stage this summer showing what the clubs outside of Buenos Aires can offer. Two of these venues are home to Primera B Nacional sides while Mendoza’s main club, Juventud Antoniana are a third tier regional side. The equivalent would be a team like Plymouth hosting a European Championship match.
I love the way how Argentina are using this tournament to show the world that there is football outside Buenos Aires and European exports. It possibly says something about the goings on domestically as well with one of Buenos Aires biggest and most well known clubs, River Plate staring right into the depths known as relegation right now. Unlike domestic leagues in Europe Argentina’s top tier, the Primera Division runs two championships in one year, starting with the Apertura (Opening) and then finally the Clausara (Closing) championship. The predicament River find themselves in is worked out on a more complicated basis with Relegation being worked out over three championships with the teams with the lowest average of points per game saying goodbye to the top flight. I’m sure for all teams associated down the bottom of that relegation table, Argentina’s fight for a record 15th Copa America will be a welcome break from the grind of relegation.
But for Argentina it is now 18 years without a title and when Lionel Messi is saying the lack of recent success “Is a big thorn in my side” it is something that urgently needs to be addressed under the current regime. After securing another Champions League victory with FC Barcelona on Saturday night the question every Argentina fan is pondering is whether they could have the same success with the little magician in their side. Messi has dazzled us all with his weekly displays of brilliance on the canvas of Barcelona but has failed to recapture this form for seleccio. Over the last two World Cup’s Argentina arguably have had one of the best squad’s in the world, if not the best, but the prize of a major senior trophy has alluded them since Copa America success in 1993 and it’s that tournament again that the people hope will spark the Messi era for the national team.
But of course Argentina isn’t all about Messi, in fact in recent years some members of the media have seen him more of a problem than a solution but we won’t dwell on that here. The difficulty with doing a preview on Argentina is where do you start with the squad, it is chock full of players who have done it at the highest level in European football from forwards Higuain, Di Maria and Aguero to Midfielders Pastore, Veron and captain Javier Mascherano. But what of the defence and goalkeeper situation? While the middle and front of the team is brimming with talent the defence is where Argentina could have problems against some of the continent’s more established sides. The liklihood is that we’ll see something like Zabaleta, Burdisso, Otamendi and Zanetti taking the defensive birth’s. Not bad players by any stretch of the imagination but compared to the quality of everything in front of them, it certainly pales in comparison. With Mascherano’s recent good performances for Barcelona at centre back, could he be the solution? In 9 games they’ve only conceeded 4 goals, could the captain help out his country? Perhaps for the terrier like defensive midfielder going to centre back would be a perfect fit and perhaps be a career changing move long term.
With all these world class players who will have the tactical nous to weave it all together? One Sergio Batista of course the man who led Argentina U23’s to Olympic glory in Beijing 2008. After the Quarter Final exit to Germany at last year’s World Cup and Maradona’s departure Batista was the man the AFA looked to in July. He was hired initially as caretaker, moving up from the youth teams before being offered the job on a permanent basis after beating world champions Spain 4-1 three months later. Batista’s first official game as permanent coach was a high profile friendly against Brazil in Qatar where Messi scrored in second half injury time to perhaps herald the start of new era for La Albiceleste.
One name that I haven’t mentioned so far is that of Carlos Tevez, despite 20 goals and 6 assists during the season there are strong rumours that he won’t be in the final squad for the Copa America. Around the time when Batista was appointed there was talk that some of the senior players from the World Cup were unhappy with the appointment of Batista as head coach and made these feelings known to the AFA. Tevez is one of these players, he was included in Batista’s first few squads but then in January he was dropped along with Maradona’s son-in-law Aguero, Heinze and Demichellis for the game against Portugal. Batista has since patched things up with Aguero, Heinze and Demichellis but still not with Tevez. Batista has already set his stall out and says that the tactical plan for Argentina going forward has already been decided and it’s a plan that doesn’t seem to involve Tevez. With Messi continuing his Barcelona role as the ‘false’ number 9 and a mixture of Aguero, Lavezzi and Di Maria on the wing with Higuain as the backup plan. While Batista says the door for Tevez hasn’t been completely shut it would seem nothing more than a token gesture towards Tevez who has remained silent on the subject.
Whether Argentina can win the Copa without Tevez is a bit of a silly question in my opinion. Even without the City man Argentina still possess one of world football’s greatest squads even with their problems at the back, while some of the coaches with seleccio are keen on reminding the people that they will use this competition as nothing more than a warm up for World Cup qualifying which starts in earnest afterwards, the feeling of that 3-0 defeat to arch rivals Brazil in the 2007 edition is still a big pain in Argentine hearts. Anything less than victory could see enormous amounts of pressure put on Batista’s shoulders as the World Cup parade finally swings down to South America in 2014, Argentina is watching and hoping for success to be returned.
Twitter – @craigshields9