“We didn’t want to start this way but now we have to lift our heads and keep going,” were the words of Lionel Messi after once more being part of a what is now familiar disjointed Argentina side that had just suffered defeat in their Copa América opener against Colombia.
Chances for Messi to guide Argentina to a trophy and end the drought that stretches back to the 1993 edition of this tournament are getting slimmer all the time and following back-to-back final defeats, a repeat run in Brazil looks highly unlikely this time round.
Argentina haven’t lost in the Copa América, excluding penalty defeats, since the 2007 final against Brazil and haven’t suffered defeat in their opening game since 1979 but Lionel Scaloni’s side were second best against Colombia and deservedly on the end of a first defeat to the Cafeteros in 12 years.
And there was nothing that Messi could do about it. The inexperienced Lionel Scaloni had boasted of his side’s firepower in attack but imbalance, in part caused by Messi’s free role, the rest of the side’s inability to link with this, Angel Di María an anonymous figure on the left and Sergio Agüero stranded without service, made Argentina a blunt weapon.
So the other part of Scaloni’s scheme was to be compact and tough to beat. Over a poor first 45 minutes La Albiceleste just about managed that without ever looking too comfortable as Colombia shaded proceedings without being able to find an opener.
The decision to replace Di María with Rodrigo de Paul saw Argentina improve after the break and a couple of long range efforts from Leandro Paredes and a couple of moments for Messi – one a close range header just wide following in from Nicolás Otamendi’s saved header and another jinking run only stopped at the last second by the impressive Wilmar Barrios.
However, with Argentina for the first time in the ascendency and much higher up the pitch, Colombia became all the more dangerous. A splendid long pass across the pitch by James Rodríguez found former Racing Club forward Roger Martínez one-on-one with the isolated Renzo Saravia and the Colombian cut inside onto his right foot to deliver a fierce shot into the far corner.
Argentina never really looked like salvaging something and Scaloni’s decision to replace Agüero with Matias Suárez had the look of a white flag rather than an attempt to turn things around. Duvan Zapata, another to have plied his trade in Argentina with Estudiantes, sealed the win for Colombia late on when another cross-field pass left Saravia with the overlapping Jefferson Lerma to contend with and his low cross was slid in by the in-form Atalanta striker.
“We improved in the second half and created chances,” Lionel Scaloni said in his post-match press conference but amid excuses over the state of the pitch in Salvador the Argentina coach didn’t appear to have seen the same game that most had watched.
“We still have two matches left and if we win them we will certainly advance.”
Argentina play Paraguay next in Belo Horizonte before finishing the group against Qatar and neither look guarantees at this point.