What looked like was going to be a miserable goalless draw in the Estadio Monumental turned out to be a whole lot worse for Argentina after Ecuador scored two late goals to record a famous victory in Buenos Aires in the opening round of World Cup qualification. The only time that La Albiceleste had previously been defeated in a qualifier in the Monumental was in 1993 when Alfaro Basile’s side were humbled 5-0 by Colombia. That Colombian side, is often thought of as a golden generation, while this Ecuador team were expected to provide little opposition for Gerardo Martino’s World Cup and Copa América finalists in spite of Lionel Messi’s absence.
The reality, worryingly for Argentina, was very different. For 90 minutes, Martino’s side laboured in possession and failed to create any real chances, whilst continually looking susceptible to Ecuador’s pace and width. During a hugely lacklustre opening 45 minutes, it was the visitors that carved out the best opportunities and the only notable event for Argentina was the apparent hamstring injury suffered by Sergio Agüero. The Manchester City striker was supposed to spearhead the attack with Messi back in Barcelona nursing his knee injury but limped off after only 20 minutes and although his replacement, Carlos Tevez drew initial cheers from the crowd, the Boca striker proved as ineffective as ever in an Argentina shirt.
Prior to kickoff, Ecuador’s most obvious threat was going to be Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia and these two made Argentina’s problems at full-back all the more clear after tormenting Martino’s replacements, Facundo Roncaglia and Emmanuel Más.
With ten minutes remaining, Valencia’s dominance over Más down Argentina’s left proved decisive. The Manchester United winger won the corner from the San Lorenzo defender from which Fricson Erazo headed Ecuador in front and while the visitors up in the top tier of the Monumental were still celebrating, Valencia sped past Más on the counter to square for Felipe Caicedo and tap in the killer blow.
Never before has Argentina’s lack of international quality full-backs been exposed so brutally. With Zabaleta and Rojo both injured, Roncaglia and Más were the next in line and both fluffed their auditions. What Argentina are desperately in need of are a pair of natural, attacking full-backs that can stretch the pitch and provide an outlet for the attack whilst still understanding the defensive responsibilities of the position. Roncaglia as a converted centre-back does not fit the bill and the jury is well and truly out over whether Más is capable of stepping up from the Argentine Primera to international football.
The role of Javier Mascherano in the midfield only exacerbates this problem due to the Barcelona player eternally dropping between the two centre-backs and in general playing the ball sideways. With two defensive minded full-backs, an apparent five-man defence is created when Argentina are in possession and it left Lucas Biglia and the ononymous Javier Pastore outnumbered in central midfield. The side is not dynamic enough and Argentina quickly fall into the trap of not moving the ball forward quickly enough, allowing well-drilled sides, like Ecuador, to drop into position, nullify the slow attack and then look to counter.
Gerardo Martino does not have long to find a solution because Tuesday’s match against Paraguay is now all the more important. Argentina must have points on the board ahead of November’s double-header against Colombia and Brazil, where La Albiceleste will once again be without Lionel Messi. No South American side have ever reached the World Cup after starting their qualifying campaign with a home defeat and although Argentina are still expected to progress, Ecuador have provided a huge wake-up call.