Argentina were unable to maintain their perfect start to World Cup qualification on Thursday evening as a dogged Paraguay battled to a 1-1 draw in La Bombonera. Lionel Messi and Co. were far from their best and yet will feel a sense of injustice after VAR denied Argentina’s captain what would have been a superb winning goal.
Paraguay have often proved difficult opponents for Argentina and not lost a qualifier in Buenos Aires since 1973 so there aggressive start was no surprise. Lionel Scaloni had been forced into changes and the surprise selection of Nicolás González as a makeshift left-back in for the injured Nicolás Tagliafico gave further hope to the visitors.
And yet it wasn’t the out of position forward that looked most vulnerable. Paraguay harried and pressed Argentina’s defence in the knowledge of Nicolás Otamendi’s clear discomfort and it was no real surprise when the breakthrough came after 20 minutes. Miguel Almirón’s pace looked a theoretical danger before kick-off and the Newcastle United speed-merchant proved it to be true bursting into the penalty box to draw a clumsy challenge from Lucas Martínez Quarta.
San Lorenzo forward Ángel Romero slotted coolly in from the spot and at that point the momentum began to turn. Paraguay retreated and were unable to keep possession as Argentina began to at last find a footing in the game.
Romero further endeared himself to the hosts with a reckless challenge on Exequiel Palacios which could easily have warranted a red card, the Paraguayan clattering into the former River Plate midfielder’s spine with both knees. A collision that has since been confirmed to have fractured a vertebrae and will keep Palacios sidelined for 2-3 months.
Yet in the context of the game it appeared to aid Argentina as Giovani Lo Celso replaced Palacios and immediately provided a greater attacking impetus.
It was from Lo Celso’s corner that the Albiceleste found their equaliser before the break, a fine delivery finding the head of Nicolás González who rose above the Paraguayan defenders to plant the ball past Antony Silva.
Argentina had begun to assume control before half time but after the break it was almost entirely one-way traffic.
Just before the hour mark Messi and Argentina thought they had turned it around. A wonderful, flowing move released González down the left who in turn slipped in Lo Celso before finding the arriving Messi to stroke the ball into the bottom corner. It was the moment of quality the game needed and yet Brazilian referee Raphael Claus and VAR had other ideas. A check on the monitors showed a foul by González a good minute before the ball found the net but it was enough for the officials to chalk off Messi’s goal.
Messi would later hit the crossbar with a trademark free-kick but Argentina’s captain was unable to conjure up anything else in a frustrating encounter which saw the Barcelona great struggle at times.
The draw extends Argentina’s unbeaten run to ten games and for the moment puts the Albiceleste top of CONMEBOL qualification but ahead of Tuesday’s tricky trip to Peru on Tuesday, it is two points dropped.
“We are left with a bittersweet taste because Argentina did everything to win,” a clearly angry Lionel Scaloni said.
“In the second half we pinned our opponents back. We also have to recognise the team’s attitude in always believing they could win.”
Argentina’s coach is right to point to his side’s spirit as was also evident last month in La Paz but on that occasion it ended in three points and the Albiceleste must now be certain the unbeaten streak doesn’t come to an end in Lima.