After two consecutive 2-2 draws in Venezuela and Peru, Edgardo Bauza immediately finds himself under a degree of pressure ahead of the visit of Paraguay. Argentina’s two-match winless run has seen La Albiceleste drop to fifth (albeit level on points with Ecuador and Colombia in the places above) and so anything less than three points in Córdoba on Tuesday will be failure.
With Lionel Messi missing again through injury, results in his absence illustrate how much of a potential banana skin the visit of Paraguay is and how badly Edgardo Bauza needs a plan B. The statistics so far in World Cup qualification make for worrying reading: Three wins from three with Messi; one win, four draws and a defeat without him.
Certainly last Thursday’s draw in Lima did nothing to dispel concerns with Bauza’s 4-2-3-1 formation ill-equipped to control the game and create chances.
The disconnect between the double-five of Javier Mascherano and Matías Kranevitter and the attacking three in front led to a lack of any meaningful possession, Paulo Dybala looking out of position on the right and Sergio Agüero virtually anonymous in his deeper role behind Gonzalo Higuaín.
Bauza’s two unenforced changes for Tuesday seek to address this problem with Éver Banega replacing Kranevitter and Nicolás Gaitán coming in for Paulo Dybala. Banega’s cameo against Peru came 75 minutes too late but showed the importance of having someone that can link the play and is comfortable carrying the ball forward.
Gaitán is certainly a more natural fit on the right and performed well in earlier qualifiers when replacing Lionel Messi but there remains a great deal of pressure on Sergio Agüero to perform in his unfamiliar role.
The three enforced changes are in the defence and will be an area that Paraguay will look to exploit. Suspensions to Pablo Zabaleta, Nicolás Otamendi and Ramiro Funes Mori mean that Bauza will field the unfamiliar central defensive pairing of Mateo Musacchio and Martín Demichelis.
Injuries have perhaps hindered Musacchio’s progression but his opportunity is overdue. However, the inclusion of 35-year-old Demichelis, who has not played club football since May is a worry. The former Manchester City defender has already been coaxed out of retirement but now fails to get into an Espanyol side not exactly blessed in the defensive department.
Why no Argentina coach thinks to play Javier Mascherano in central defence in these instances is anyone’s guess but without question Francisco Arce will be looking at this Argentina line-up and believe his side can trouble a suspect looking back line.
Argentina XI: Sergio Romero; Gabriel Mercado, Mateo Musacchio, Martín Demichelis, Marcos Rojo; Éver Banega, Javier Mascherano; Nicolás Gaitán, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María; Gonzalo Higuaín
Paraguay XI: Justo Villar: Jorge Moreira, Gustavo Gómez, Paulo Da Silva, Júnior Alonso; Rodrigo Rojas, Óscar Romero, Miguel Almirón, Cristian Riveros or Marcos Riveros; Derlis González, Ángel Romero
Following successive defeats to Uruguay and Colombia, Tuesday’s clash is of huge importance to Paraguay if they are to qualify for the World Cup. Los Guaraníes sit just below Argentina in sixth, outside the final playoff spot, but a gap is already beginning to appear. While it remains at four points, Paraguay have a chance but should that be seven points after Tuesday, hopes of Russia 2018 may already have slipped away.
Similar to Argentina, Paraguay are under a new coach (his second spell in charge) in Francisco ‘Chiqui’ Arce and the disjointed manner of their defeat to Colombia in Ascunción illustrated just how much work there is still to do.
Arce’s side are undoudtedly underdogs in Córdoba but with the talented duo of Miguel Almirón and Óscar Romero looking to pull the strings and find space to exploit, Paraguay have tools to unsettle Argentina.
Romero’s eye for a pass from deep, over the top of a high-line is evident on a weekly basis for Racing Club and the tricky midfielder will hope to reproduce this and get Demichelis on the back foot.
Forward Lucas Barrios, told the Paraguayan Football Association’s official website: “It is true that we need points but we cannot play with desperation, because that will work against us.
“We know the kind of game we are going to face, and we have great players who each day are getting the ideas of the coach.”
The last time these side’s faced was almost exactly one year ago in the second match of this World Cup qualification process and it ended goalless. Messi was missing that day too and Gerardo Martino’s Argentina lacked the creativity needed in his absence to unlock the home side.
However, that goalless draw aside, it is a fixture that Argentina have historically dominated and in recent years have scored plenty.
In 106 matches, Argentina have won 59, drawn 32 and lost 15. The last defeat on Argentine soil coming in a friendly in 1987 and in the 22 matches played between the sides since, Paraguay have won just twice – both in Asunción.
In the Copa América 2015, Argentina thrashed Paraguay 6-1 in the semi-finals with goals from Marcos Rojo, Javier Pastore, Ángel Di María (2), Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín having drawn 2-2 earlier in the group stage of the same tournament.
In qualification for the 2014 World Cup, Argentina enjoyed comfortable victories home and away – 3-1 in Córdoba and 5-2 in Asunción.
The last Paraguay win came in 2009 when Gerardo Martino was in charge of La Albirroja and a superb Nelson Haedo Valdez handed the home side victory over Diego Maradona’s Argentina.