As the inevitable post-mortem following Argentina’s humiliating 4-0 reverse to Germany begins, there are many questions that, for now at least, coach Diego Maradona and his technical team will have to answer.
People will wonder why Lionel Messi was so often picking up the ball from his own half in order to start another Albiceleste attack. They will be indignant that Javier Mascherano was left to contend with an essentially five-man midfield virtually alone. And they will be positively baffled by the fact that a feeble England attack managed to make the ball cross the goal line twice against the sturdy German defence while the most potent strike force in the world could not break it down even once.
But the most pertinent question sprang to mind the second Miroslav Klose scored the second and most crucial goal of the game. As young Velez centre-back Nicolas Otamendi trudged inconsolably off the field, withdrawn for his own good after being partly at fault for both goals, it had to be asked- why was he starting at right back instead of Javier Zanetti?
Big shoes to fill | Otamendi could not cover the void eft by Zanetti's absence
Although Otamendi is undoubtedly one for the future and is a vindication of Diego’s policy of scouring the national league to find hidden gems, against the probing and direct runs of Thomas Mueller he had a nightmare from start to finish. Having been forced to concede a free kick early on due to being completely off the pace, his failure to pick up Mueller seconds later resulted in the starlet having a completely free header to make it 1-0 to the Europeans.
In the build up to the second goal too, Otamendi found himself well out of position as Podolski fed the ball through to World Cup goal machine Klose on his side of the pitch - a further indication that the natural centre-half is not up to marshaling the flanks against world-class sides.
The board immediately went up and Javier Pastore entered ostensibly to give a further attacking threat, but it felt like Diego also wanted to spare the youngster any more humiliation.
The fault cannot be placed squarely on young Nico however, but on the selection policies of the outspoken coach. The fact is, among the 23 players who travelled to South Africa there was not one single natural right-back. Let’s not forget that Otamendi was considered a least bad alternative for the quarter-final, after two fairly nightmarish performances from left-winger Jonas Gutierrez playing out of position in the same place.
What about Zanetti, the Inter captain who so brilliantly shackled compatriot Lionel Messi as captain of Champions League winners Inter? He was covering the tournament as a reporter for Mexican television - forced to watch from the sidelines as the key to his beloved nation’s defeat proved to be the place he has made his own for the last 15 years.
Early Sunday reports in Argentina suggested with the wonderful gift of hindsight that the omission of ‘Pupi’ was an inexplicable oversight by El Diego. “Even if it sounds like a tired argument, Zanetti, who could also play in the centre, should have had a room at the (Argentina base) HPC,” Ole announced in their top ten reasons for the defeat.
While castigating Otamendi’s performance under the title "What went wrong, Ota?" the newspaper also brilliantly clarified, "Although Otamendi is not the reincarnation of all evil, everything that happened to him yesterday turned out evil."
Clarin also questioned the decision to leave the 37-year-old twiddling his thumbs on the sidelines. “On top of (leaving out Cambiasso and Riquelme) Maradona got rid of Javier Zanetti, of such a brilliant season at Inter. And what happened with the right-back position at the World Cup?”
There seems little doubt that this was Zanetti’s time to shine, a last hurrah stolen from him and the team just as in 2006. The glaring hole left by a 37-year-old however begs yet another question; where do Argentina go from here? The Albiceleste, despite boasting talent in almost every position are chronically short of players at full back; with more confirmation given watching the equally unimpressive and at times glacially slow Gabriel Heinze toil on the left.
With Zanetti due to be 41 in 2014 it is fair to say making a home Copa America next year will be the limit of his international aspirations, meaning that now is the time for Argentina to find a solution to this problematic area.
The young Rubin Kazan talent Cristian Ansaldi is an option, while Clemente Rodriguez was solid in his only World Cup appearance and Ariel Garce did a predictably sterling job of providing the alfajores (a type of cookie) during his long stints on the bench.
The future? | Ansaldi is one of the few options la seleccion has at full back
A stronger, more experienced and perhaps Europe-wisened Otamendi could also prove to be a world-class wide man, although the Germany game showed he has a long way to go. Jonas on the other hand should stay well away.
In 2010, it should have been the outstanding former skipper’s chance to shine; and while the incredibly modest and patriotic Zanetti will never admit it, a part of him undoubtedly could not have avoided thinking as the young pretender toiled and spluttered through the quarter final: could I have made the difference in South Africa?
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