Argentina aren’t out of the Copa América just yet but Lionel Messi’s second half penalty was only enough to avoid defeat to Paraguay and Lionel Scaloni’s side, currently bottom of Group B, must defeat Qatar on Sunday to hopefully scrape through to the quarter-final.
It is no more than their performances deserve as Argentina were fortuitous to take a point and Scaloni increasingly has the look of a coach way out of his depth.
The 41-year-old’s first competitive match as a manager ended in defeat to Colombia and as with every game in charge so far Scaloni opted for change. Milton Casco, Roberto Pereyra, Rodrigo de Paul and Lautaro Martinez all came into the starting eleven but it made no difference to his side’s performance.
For all the talk of positives from the second half against Colombia and clear game plans to face Paraguay, Scaloni still looked bereft of ideas. Miguel Almiron dashed past Pereyra and Casco to cut the ball back for Richard Sanchez to rifle past Franco Armani before half time and Argentina were facing elimination.
Lautaro Martinez had enjoyed about as much success as Sergio Aguero had done against Colombia in the number nine role, as if the problem wasn’t with the personnel but rather the system.
And so Scaloni rolled the dice. On came Aguero in place of Pereyra and suddenly Argentina looked a threat. Martinez had a partner to play off, Messi could find greater space behind the pair and the midfield appeared more balanced and it was the front two who combined to create the equaliser.
Admittedly a stroke of luck was needed too. De Paul floated a ball over the top that was superbly brought down by Aguero and cut back to Martinez, whose shot on goal clattered against the crossbar. A moment of excitement and promise but nothing more it seemed until the referee paused to check the replay.
Martinez’s shot had deflected off Iván Piris’ arm and with the assistance of VAR a penalty was awarded. Messi made no mistake and Argentina now looked like they could go and win the game.
For the first time in the game Argentina were on top which made Scaloni’s decision to replace Martinez for Angel Di Maria all the more bizarre. The coach claimed in his post-match press conference that the young striker had picked up an injury but there had been little evidence of that and it almost proved costly.
An absurd Nicolas Otamendi tackle on Derlis Gonzalez gifted Paraguay an opportunity to restore their lead only for Franco Armani to answer his critics with a vital penalty save. How Otamendi avoided a yellow card and a subsequent sending off for a similarly rash challenge on Almiron is anyone’s guess but with that good fortune Argentina held on for the point.
Four points should be enough to progress as at least one of the best third-placed sides but Argentina must beat Qatar on Sunday, a result that looks far from a foregone conclusion.