Another clean sheet in the shirt of Valencia sees Ezequiel Garay back in the spotlight as a possibility to solve Argentina’s defensive dilemma
Lionel Messi dragging Argentina to the World Cup final in 2014 has been the narrative ever since and while there is certainly truth in such a statement, it’s worth remembering that Alejandro Sabella’s side didn’t concede a single goal in the knockout stages until Mario Gotze’s heart-breaking winner in extra-time to lift the trophy.
Fast forward almost four years and Argentina are conceding six in a final friendly against Spain before naming the squad that will head to Russia hoping to go one better than in Brazil.
Much has happened since that night in the Maracana four years ago – Jorge Sampaoli is the third manager, La Albiceleste have suffered two further final defeats and World Cup qualification was a chaotic mess that almost ended in embarrassment.
Dependence on Messi has only increased, but what was also glaringly obvious in the Wanda Metropolitana last week was how fragile Argentina are defensively.
Sampaoli’s high-press in either a back three or a back four is lacking in pace, leaves the space behind the full-backs exposed and importantly is devoid of genuine quality in the centre.
Argentina has a fine history in this position from Daniel Passarella to Oscar Ruggeri, both key parts to World Cup winning sides, but since Roberto Ayala retired in 2007, La Albiceleste have been without a world class leader.
Alejandro Sabella was acutely aware of his side’s deficiencies but besides from closing his eyes and hoping for the best when the opposition attacked, there was one player vital to Argentina’s success, Ezequiel Garay.
Curiously in a four-year period in which Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Jorge Sampaoli have failed to adequately replace the 2014 squad, one of the few players who could have still played an important role is Garay.
Since the 2015 Copa América, the Valencia defender has featured just once, all the way back in the first round of Word Cup qualifying, and after injury curtailed his involvement, rumours swirled that Garay had effectively announced his international retirement by rejecting future call-ups.
In the meantime, Martín Demichelis was able to inexplicably extend his Argentina career and since then three coaches have called upon countless different centre backs to try and find a partner for Nicolás Otamendi.
With Argentina heading to Russia with no clear choice, Garay may have answered the call by responding to those reports: “Have you ever heard that from my mouth? No. Then I never give up.
“It’s always a dream to be able to play for your country. It’s a question for the Argentina coach, I try to do things right for my club and then it depends on the coach.
“It’s not up to me who goes and who doesn’t.”
If Garay is genuinely making himself available then aside from the reason behind his two-and-a-half year exile, Argentina would have another excellent addition to the squad.
Federico Fazio has been Sampaoli’s preferred option with Otamendi but badly lacks pace, Javier Mascherano is back in midfield, Ramiro Funes Mori and Marcos Rojo are battling back from long-term injury, Emanuel Mammana faces months out and the likes of Germán Pezzella and Mateo Musacchio are out of favour.
The need for Sampaoli to find balance and a system that offers protection in tandem with the attacking talents available is more important than any individual but Garay would provide La Albilceleste with a leader, an organiser and a solid defender.
And there aren’t many of those around.