By Daniel Edwards in Santa Fe
As Argentina trudged off the pitch in Santa Fe - the whistles, insults and jeers ringing loud in their ears - few on the team cut a more forlorn figure than Lionel Messi. His team had avoided - just - becoming the latest giants to fall in the famous ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’ of Club Atletico Colon, but apart from the one point added to their Copa America haul, there were few positives to take from the game against Colombia for either ‘La Pulga’ or his stuttering team-mates.
It was not so much the fact that the Barcelona phenomenon did not reach the levels expected of him from countless match-winning performances with the Catalan giants. It was the reality that, aside from a handful of sparkling moments that we almost take for granted from a player of his quality, he looked lost and ineffective in his role as a withdrawn No. 9, a centre-forward who could neither create nor define amongst a sea of tenacious defenders.
The Argentine team is light-years away from demonstrating what coach Sergio Batista wishes to see: a South American Barca that can combine patient build-up play with a lightning transition into the danger zone. The only person who cannot seem to see it is ‘Checho’, who continues to talk about bad luck and a lack of precision when what seems to be sorely lacking is a clear idea of what needs to be done to harness the attacking riches within the squad.
In fact, the best example of what Batista is striving for, and failing to achieve, could perhaps be seen on the other side of the pitch in the yellow of Colombia. Little wonder, when instead of a ‘false’ centre-forward in the shape of Messi you have the real thing in the shape of Radamel Falcao Garcia. He may not have added to his impressive collection of goals harvested in 2010-11, but it was one of the only details missing from an otherwise accomplished display.
No way through | Messi is squeezed off the ball once more on Wednesday evening
No-one could make the case that the Porto striker is a better player than the little Argentine, but Falcao demonstrated on Wednesday that he could become the focal point of an attack in the way that Lionel has struggled to over the last week. Dropping deep, he had the strength to hold off the opposition defence, time and again drawing two markers before releasing a colleague into space. And when it fell to him to beat a man, Radamel proved himself capable of surging past with skill and pace.
Most importantly, the Colombian did not allow himself to get sucked back into midfield like his opposite number. His territory begins on the edge of the final third and ends in the penalty area, and in this sector there are few who can match him run-for-run, shot-for-shot.
He was helped by having two players outside him who, unlike the ineffective Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi, executed their given roles to the letter. Adrian Ramos and Dayro Moreno may have blotted their copybooks with a shocking miss each, but both put in bustling performances down the wings with plenty of arrivals into the Argentina area, feeding off Falcao and each other to time and again put the Albiceleste backline in danger.
| TALE OF TWO '9s' | Player Ratings
The fact that goalkeeper Sergio Romero won the man-of-the-match award after making several inspired stops makes it clear that this was a team that put the Copa America hosts under significant duress over the 90 minutes.
Argentina now find themselves at an unexpected crisis point, needing a win against Costa Rica to avoid a humiliating exit from the Copa at the first round - a result which would almost certainly mean the end of Batista and his fantasies of playing like Barcelona. The latest tactics are not working, a truth hinted at by Bolivia and confirmed by Colombia's relentless defence, chief among them veteran warhorse and captain Mario Yepes.
There is no Falcao in the Albiceleste team, and it would be facetious to try and adopt Hernan Dario Gomez’s tactics when they are designed for a team that oozes pace and purpose on the break. Patience and subtlety will not be supplanted by the Cafeteros’ smash-and-grab counter play, and nor should they be. Lionel Messi will stay as the withdrawn No. 9 for the Costa Rica test, with very little alteration in the general idea of play.
‘La Pulga’, however, should look closely at Falcao’s performance in Wednesday’s draw. Although he could not find the back of the net, the Colombian’s attitude, self-sacrifice and embracing of the role apportioned to him can serve as an example even to the best player in the world; more than ever when he is struggling to find his way in a misfiring Seleccion.