Sam Kelly1 Comment


Sam Kelly1 Comment

Here it is! (you didn't think we'd be all over Brazil did you)

The day's finally here when the pre-tournament bluster comes to an end, and the competition starts in earnest. The Copa América is 95 years old this year, and returns to the country that first hosted it. Bolivia will be starting the 700th match in their national team's history in La Plata tonight, but all the focus will be on their hosts, a team who'll start out eager to erase memories of the last match they played against these opponents on the 1st April 2009 (that amazing 6-1 defeat in La Paz).

Argentina have rebuilt since last year's World Cup campaign, but more in spirit and setup than personnel – although there have been some key changes in that regard as well. Whilst it's a truism that anyone other than Diego Maradona as manager is an improvement over Diego Maradona as manager, Sergio Batista has not been without his critics since taking charge. Nefarious forces may or may not have been behind an effective 'B' side's recent 4-1 capitulation in Nigeria, but in first team games the win against Brazil and the thrashing of Spain were balanced by a defeat to Japan in the second half of last year.

In most areas, though, Argentina look more well-organised and far better balanced than Maradona's men did twelve months ago. Up front, they've got more strength in depth than probably any other national side on the planet. Well, can you name another country which would have players of the quality of Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín battling Ángel Di María for the honour of being the fourth choice forward? In Lionel Messi, their attack is lead by a player for whom the description 'world class' seems like an insult.

It's Carlos Tevez's introduction to the side that could provide Argentina with the extra boost they need though. Tevez has spent months in exile from the national side for reasons that became perhaps the worst-kept secret in Argentine football. A player was said to have been agitating for Diego Maradona to stay on as manager, and when Sergio Batista was officially confirmed in the role in the wake of the 4-1 tonking of the world champions, Tevez was left out of the team a few months later. Batista has constantly insisted it was a tactical decision and that Carlitos simply didn't fit his plans for the Copa América. Plenty doubted it, but when a remarkable about-turn was executed by both sides, Tevez was straight back in the team. He's gone from being an outcast to an almost definite starter against Bolivia tonight.

In midfield, Batista's main aim to to keep possession, and not push anyone so far forward centrally that they get in the way of Messi, who'll be in the middle of the front three playing the same 'false nine' role he's done so well in for Barcelona this season. Javier Mascherano, the captain, will be flanked by Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega, in a solid, well-balanced three-man midfield. Not for Batista the suicidal kamikaze approach Maradona utilised against Germany last year, throwing Mascherano to the wolves and expecting him to keep the ball away from his defence on his own.

Of course, this leaves only a place on the bench for the stellar talent of Javier Pastore, who might hope to break into the eleven by the end of the tournament, but will surely more likely have the longer-term aim of doing so in the three years building up to the next World Cup. He could well be used as a game-changing substitute though, especially if Argentina are dominating matches but struggling to find a way through what are bound to be tightly-packed defences against some opponents.

The weakness is the defence. Marcos Rojo and especially the great Javier Zanetti offer very little room for complaint in the full back positions, but at centre back there's a lack of pace and composure, and Gabriel Milito, chosen for his calmness on the ball and ability to pass it out from the back, has barely been fit all season. Nicolás Pareja and Ezequiel Garay both look promising as alternatives in the long run, but have little experience should they be thrown into the fray under pressure. Behind the back line, the goalkeeper looks likely to be Sergio Romero, but although all the options have their merits, they're a long way from the great Argentine goalies of old.

Batista has continually played down the need for Argentina to win this Copa América, as in fairness to him have a lot of the managers involved. He insists the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is the only thing that matters. But like his reasons for leaving Tevez out, those look increasingly empty claims as the tournament edges nearer, especially when the whole of the playing squad have made clear how desperate they are for a tournament victory.

Argentina have won nothing at senior level since the 1993 Copa América, and with a young and exceptionally talented squad this time round are looking to right the wrongs done in the finals of the last two tournaments, both of which they lost to Brazil after being, for neutral observers, the best side throughout the tournament. A win for Argentina would also see them move clear of Uruguay and out on their own as the most successful country in the competition, with fifteen titles.

Batista might yet prove to be the side's weakest link, though. He's given more intelligent thought to the side than Maradona ever did, but in difficult matches to date hasn't looked able to change the pace or direction of the game. Witness the 1-1 draw with the United States earlier in the year for instance, when Argentina's advantage wasn't sufficiently pressed home in the first half, and Bob Bradley out-thought his opposite number in the second half to get the draw. With the players they have, the crowds across the country behind them, and their newfound balance, Argentina will be expecting to at least make the final. But their manager's limitations, and the psychological advantage Brazil may hold over them having won all recent matches in which a trophy's been at stake (not only in the Copa América, but also in Confederations Cup games this century) might very well, I fear, stop them there yet again.

The pressure

As host nation, expectations will be higher even than normal, but a couple of things ought to help. The first, of course, is that these are players who thrive under pressure: no Argentine in football history – including Alfredo Di Stéfano's years as a Spaniard – has won more trophies than Nicolás Burdisso, Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso have, whilst Tevez, Mascherano, Messi and more just seem to get better the bigger the game is. The second factor is that the only game in Buenos Aires will be the final. Outside the capital, the fans are much less critical and far more supportive of the team, and that ought to give them momentum through the tournament on the way to the Estadio Monumental.

The comparison

So, Messi has to win a World Cup before he can be considered on Diego Maradona's level as a player? Well, Maradona never won the European Cup of course, nor the Spanish league. But he also never won the Copa América (nor did Pelé, whilst we're on the subject, though he only played in one). So if Messi is able to do that, will those drawing this ridiculous parallel finally shut up? Probably not, but it'll be interesting to see.

The manager

Just who is Sergio Batista? A team-mate of Maradona's during the 1986 World Cup, and the most senior of the current glut of that team who, with little or no managerial experience, are managing Argentine national sides across all age groups. Batista was youth team manager whilst Maradona was first team boss, and managed the fantastic feat of failing to qualify for the Youth World Cup – a tournament Argentina had won the previous two editions of – with a talented side. Lots of fans will be hoping he doesn't repeat a similar trick at senior level.

The man to watch

You all know who this is. Say what you like about Lionel Messi not being as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona, but no-one is as good at anything as Lionel Messi is at playing football for Barcelona. Messi needs three goals to enter Argentina's all-time top ten goalscorers, he's a handful of assists away from getting into that top ten as well, and he's well on the way to becoming one of the nation's most-capped players. Oh – and he turned 24 years old last week. He is, on almost every level, the player you used to dream about being when you were eight or nine years old, and came to realise in your late teens you'd never actually see in real life. But since he never played his club football in his homeland, there are still those in Argentina who doubt him. He's determined, he's highly-motivated, he's his team's most important player, and he's well on the way to becoming an all-time great of the game. If you're only going to watch one man in this tournament, watch Messi. But of course, you already knew that.

Sam is a freelance football writer based in Buenos Aires. He edits the superb Hasta El Gol Siempre, and can be heard on the world's only Argentine football podcast, Hand of Pod.