The almost familiar sight of Lionel Messi whipping a free-kick into the top corner wasn’t enough to give Argentina victory in their opening match of the 2021 Copa América against Chile on Monday evening as defensive frailties and wasteful finishing cost the Albiceleste.
The crossbar and some splendid goalkeeping had denied Messi in the last couple of games but after 33 minutes, the Argentina captain picked out an unstoppable, bending strike that left Claudio Bravo clutching at air.
It was the deserved breakthrough for Lionel Scaloni’s side after a positive opening had Chile on the back foot. Yet for the main part it wasn’t Messi causing problems for La Roja, it was the effortless playmaker Giovani Lo Celso. The Spurs midfielder created chances for Lautaro Martínez and two for Nicolás González in a bright early period that suggested Argentina’s opener was imminent.
Messi’s wonderful strike should have settled Argentina but the half time interval revitalised Chile and Argentina demonstrated a worrying pattern that has continuously seen Scaloni’s side drop off as matches progress, seemingly unable to maintain their level.
With Chile now a far greater threat than they appeared during the first 45 minutes it was just before half time when La Roja drew level. Erick Pulgar’s pass exposed Argentina’s weak defensive unit with Nicolás Otamendi off balance and slow to react to Eduardo Vargas’ run in behind before Nicolás Tagliafico’s rash tackling in the box gave referee Wilmar Roldán at least two opportunities to point to the spot.
Arturo Vidal stepped and though his penalty was superbly palmed up onto the crossbar by Emiliano Martínez, Vargas was quickest to react and nodded Chile level.
Cristian Romero’s return from injury cannot come soon enough yet it is telling that the Atalanta defender after less than two full appearances is held up by many as the solution. La Albiceleste’s weaknesses may require more than that as for all the questions over the defence there are also still doubts over whether Leandro Paredes can play as the sole defensive midfielder. For the PSG player’s quality on the ball Paredes is not a natural ball winner and is hardly the assertive shield needed in front of a fragile backline.
Argentina play Uruguay on Friday and should still comfortably qualify for the quarter-finals given the structure of this year’s Copa América but improvements are needed if La Albiceleste are to improve on their showing two years ago. Fourteen games without defeat an undeniable positive but four draws in the last five hint at those lingering problems.