On Tuesday afternoon Alejandro Sabella’s team travel to the extreme altitude of La Paz to play Bolivia. Last time they played, under Diego Maradona, Argentina were humiliated, experiencing their heaviest ever defeat, losing 6 – 1. However, times are different, in 2008 Argentina were struggling for form and battling to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa. Now they are top of the table and under far less pressure as qualification seems inevitable, whatever the outcome of this game. Sabella appears to have found the way to get the best out of Lionel Messi and he has been ably supported by Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero in recent months and now expectation continues to increase. Against Venezuela, Sabella was forced to shuffle his pack slightly, with the same devastating effect, but with Higuain suspended, Aguero injured and continued question marks over the defence what will Sabella do tomorrow.
Friday night’s comfortable victory over Venezuela highlighted some key factors with the Argentinian squad. On a positive note, even without Di Maria and Aguero they were able to produce some wonderful attacking moments and Messi was still able to dictate proceedings. Lavezzi and Montillo came into the side and put in solid performances and with the likes of Rodrigo Palacio to come off the bench it appears that there are options to vary this attack if needs be. Fernando Gago looked very good in central midfield and as always was very tidy in possession, a characteristic that would have been key when playing in the altitude of La Paz but it seems that Gago will miss out on the trip with a muscle strain. However, the bigger issue from Friday’s game came in the second half and the two guilt-edged chances that Venezuela were easily able to create, even if they squandered them. Soloman Rondon was able to bypass Federico Fernandez with ease to create the openings and only wasteful finishing maintained Argentina’s clean sheet.
Sabella has given no clues from his training and his interviews what his team will be tomorrow night. With Higuain suspended, Aguero still missing and now Gago carrying an injury, Sabella will be forced to tinker with his side again, but with qualification all but certain could he experiment with some new systems to try and shore up the defence.
One possibility would be to play 3 in defence, a formation that Sabella has utilised previously. Napoli centre-half Hugo Campagnaro could sit with Garay and Fernandez as the 3, flanked by Zabaleta and Rojo making a back 5 when without the ball. Acutely aware of the problems with playing at altitude it is expected that Sabella will want to put the focus on possession, limiting the time chasing the ball. The loss of Gago in this respect will be significant but his substitution on Friday, replaced by Ever Banega probably gives us an insight into Sabella’s thoughts. Walter Montillo may keep his place in the side or Sabella may draft in River Plate midfield player, Leonardo Ponzio although a midfield 3 of Mascherano, Banega and Ponzio may be a little too defensive in front of a 5 man defence. Di Maria is available again after suspension and his pace and directness will be useful if Argentina are to play on the break. In the absense of Higuain who will support Messi? Lavezzi’s industry and pace could be important but Rodrigo Palacio is an option.
Either way Argentina find themselves in a good position as with qualification almost guaranteed and a year ahead of the World Cup they are able to experiment. Sabella is keenly aware of his side’s defensive frailities claiming, “I have to cover my face when the opponents are attacking” but the balance will be finding a way to resolve this while not hindering the incredible attacking options available. Tomorrow maybe a glimpse at what some of the alternatives could be.
Another record for Leo?
Friday’s penalty against Venezuela moved Lionel Messi within two goals of the legendary Diego Maradona. Messi now has 32 goals in 78 appearances for Argentina behind El Diego with 34 in 91. Only 3 shy of second placed, Hernan Crespo it seems Messi ivertaking both these players is only a matter of time even if he doesn’t manage this in La Paz tomorrow. However, Messi is still someway short of the great Gabriel Batistuta. Argentina’s record scorer sits comfortably at the top with 56 from 78 games, an unbelievable return. At just 25 years of age this is in Messi’s sights and could be another record that he looks to smash in his amazing career.
Problems for Bolivia
Bolivia were hammered 5-0 by Colombia on Friday and currently sit 4 points adrift of the fifth placed playoff position. With 6 games to play this is achievable and with Bolivia’s strong home record they are still looking to beat Argentina. The defeat to Colombia was not the ideal warm up. The defeat was perhaps not too surprising as Colombia are looking strong but the manner of the defeat and injury problems could be ominous ahead of Argentina’s visit.
Goalkeeper, Carlos Arias was injured and so substitute goalkeeper Sergio Galarzo had the uneviable task of picking the ball out of the net 4 times in the second half. He will play again tomorrow night but the press was critical of the whole side. Coach, Azkargorta has apologised for the display and vowed to come out fighting against Argentina. Several changes are expected and Bolivia will be hoping for a much improved performance.