Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign has been so bad that a defender is the second top scorer. That may cost the Albiceleste dearly in Tuesday’s finale
Hang on a minute, this wasn’t in the script.
Despite the miserable qualifying campaign, victory in La Bombonera against Peru was supposed to be straight forward and book Argentina’s place at the World Cup. Jorge Sampaoli’s first objective would be complete and the work of prepping for Russia could begin. If only life were that simple. Another frustrating blank slate saw La Albiceleste pick up just a single point and now only victory in Quito on Tuesday will likely save Argentina from the ultimate humiliation.
Against Venezuela one month ago, only a Rolf Feltscher own-goal salvaged a point for Argentina after another tepid performance and so all the stops were pulled out to ensure there would be no repeat.
The Argentine Football Association (AFA) opted to move from the traditional home of El Monumental to Boca Juniors’ vociferous La Bombonera in the hope that an intimidating, cacophonous atmosphere would spur Sampaoli’s side on. The supporters ensured they got that with a visually and audibly spectacular welcome but it always looked hopeful that this alone would change Argentina’s fortunes.
The AFA’s earlier change from Edgardo Bauza to Jorge Sampaoli appeared an overdue step in the right direction and while they may well have got the right man, it has been painfully clear that change will not happen overnight.
In his brief tenure of two friendlies and two qualifiers, Sampaoli has been unable to implement the ideas and systems that he would like. For the visit of Peru, the former Sevilla boss scrapped his favoured back three for a 4-2-3-1, albeit with midfielder Marcos Acuña as a make-shift left back, drafted the inform Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez from Atalanta and opted for local hero Darío Benedetto in the number nine role over any continued experimentation with a Messi-Icardi-Dybala trident.
However, the change in scenery, change in formation and tinkering with personnel made little difference as Argentina’s same old problems remained.
¡Posiciones en las #EliminatoriasCONMEBOL a falta de 1 fecha!
— CONMEBOL.com (@CONMEBOL) October 6, 2017
Captain Lionel Messi didn’t have one of his greatest matches but was still the best player on the pitch and Argentina’s dependence on the world’s number one was as strong as ever.
What has made this even clearer during this campaign is La Albiceleste’s profligacy in front of goal. Once more Messi toiled away deep, to compensate for a weak midfield and aside from going close to scoring himself on two occasions, the Barcelona star created clear chances for Darío Benedetto twice, Alejandro Gómez and Emiliano Rigoni.
Whether it be Gonzalo Higuaín, Sergio Agüero, Lucas Pratto or Darío Benedetto as the side’s number nine, Argentina have struggled up front. Averaging less than a goal a game, only Bolivia have scored less in South America. Lionel Messi is the side’s leading scorer despite missing half the matches and defender Gabriel Mercado is second.
The stats are telling – Argentina’s 22 shots and 2.72 expected goals against Peru are both the most in a game by any CONMEBOL team that did not score in this qualifying cycle and it is now 73 shots since La Albiceleste’s last goal. More than 450 minutes without a competitive goal from open play and almost a year since anyone other than Messi has scored, Argentina’s problems go far deeper than something an electric atmosphere can solve.
Sampaoli needs time that he frankly doesn’t have, and if Argentina could get a result in Quito there is still a belief that the new coach could make an impact in Russia but that doesn’t make him completely exempt from criticism.
Going with Boca Juniors striker Darío Benedetto was always going to either look like a stroke of genius or put Sampaoli in the firing line, and so the 27-year-old’s missed chances left many questioning why Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala remained on the bench or why after Sergio Agüero was ruled out through injury, Gonzalo Higuaín or Joaquín Correa were not called up.
Now of course, Icardi or Dybala may have been about to come on as Argentina chased a goal in the second half but Sampaoli’s in-game management was again curious. Another serious injury to Fernando Gago was bad luck and denied a final throw of the dice from the bench but regardless it was hardly a change that was likely to increase pressure on the Peru goal.
After so many failures Argentina have one shot left; victory in Quito on Tuesday guarantees at least the fifth-placed playoff spot and Sampaoli remains confident. The fact that it is still in La Albicelete’s hands is a shock and perhaps not really deserved given the performances but on the flip-side, the fact that this qualification process has seen three different coaches, three different AFA presidents, 60 different players and been played in five different home stadiums it’s a surprise that Argentina still have a chance.
The complete and utter dysfunction of the AFA has cost the national team dearly and another failure on Tuesday could leave the nation to pay the ultimate price.