Humberto Grondona’s Argentina under-20 side made a less than perfect start to the World Cup in New Zealand last night after being held by Panama in their group B opener. Indebted to the individual excellence of Atlético Madrid striker, Ángel Correa, Argentina led twice but on both occasions allowed Panama to come back and claim a valuable point. Los Pibes squandered a number of good opportunities but were still grateful to the sharp reflexes of River goalkeeper Augusto Batalla on occasion and a big miss by Panama striker Carlos Small minutes before full-time.
Much like during the South American championships at the start of the year, Ángel Correa looked heads and shoulders above virtually every player on the pitch and it took just fourteen minutes for the 20-year-old to open his World cup account. After a quick exchange of passes with Tomás Martínez down the right, Correa drilled a first-time finish past Jaime De Gracia to give Grondona’s boys the lead. However, the lead lasted less than five minutes as Jhamal Rodríguez unleashed a fierce drive from 25-yards that left Batalla grasping at thin air.
Argentina were the better side but Panama remained a constant threat and with Grondona’s adventurous 3-4-3 Los Pibes always looked a little vulnerable. Much like in Uruguay at the start of the year, Argentina appear at times to rely on the individual talents of the attacking players, like Correa but have little structure or sense of being a collective unit.
Shortly after half time, Batalla proved just why Real Madrid have been so eager to bring him to Europe before even appearing for River with an outstanding reflex save to deny Small from a corner and as the half progressed Argentina gradually tightened their grip on the match. With little over ten minutes remaining Correa added his second after Cristian Espinoza burst behind the Panama defence and squared the ball on the edge of the box for captain Correa to tap Argentine back in front.
That looked to have won the match but a defensive lapse allowed Fidel Escobar a free shot from inside the penalty area and he made no mistake in rifling the ball past Batalla. Panama may feel they should have won the match when another defensive error left Carlos Small through on goal but his finish was misjudged and glided past the post.
As Humberto Grondona said afterwards “the first match is always difficult” and Argentina will be glad that they avoided defeat and as the other match in Group B ended in a draw they are actually top. It is also worth noting that influential River defender Emanuel Mammana did not feature but the group will know that they must improve if they are to add World Cup title number seven. Individual skill will only get them so far and there are far greater tests to come.