With or without Messi, inexperienced Argentina face Copa America Mission Impossible

Comments()
Getty Images
Disappointing results against Venezuela and Morocco overshadowed the captain's comeback and showed the uphill task he will face this June and July

It did not take long for Argentina's newly boosted Copa America hopes to return back to earth. Six minutes, in fact, from the time Lionel Messi strutted onto the Wanda Metropolitano pitch to mark his Argentina return, to the moment that Salomon Rondon converted past a stranded Franco Armani. 

The Albiceleste's 3-1 defeat to Venezuela laid bare how much work needs to be done, even with the world's finest football talent in tow, prior to the Copa kicking off in Brazil. Messi's place within the team may not be in question but, behind the Barcelona wizard, there is barely a single position in Argentina's possible starting line-up that is not shrouded in doubt. 

Such uncertainty ultimately filters through to the top. Having seen his future placed in doubt by his very own manager, 1978 World Cup-winning legend Cesar Menotti, current coach Lionel Scaloni can no longer see past the coming tournament. 

Scaloni won the job thanks to his brave renewal of the Albiceleste set-up, introducing fresh young talents, but the trainer's inexperience in tactical matters was badly exposed by a less than daunting Venezuela team, rock-bottom in the most recent World Cup qualifying campaign. His use of a three-man defence at the Vinotinto fell flat and there is still no sign over what he considers his favoured backline. 

“I assume most responsibility, but I am convinced that this will pay off in the future,” a defiant Scaloni fired ahead of Tuesday's clash, a dire 1-0 win over Morocco in windswept Tangier. “These are games that you might lose but they bring positive things.” What those positive things were, the coach preferred not to go into detail, but they were thin on the ground in these latest friendlies. 

Former Argentina Under-20 coach Humberto Grondona, son of late long-time AFA president Julio, took a rather dimmer view of the situation. “With Messi we can be a competitive national team; without him we are just another side, second or third-rate,” he said to SuperDeporRadio. 

“The results don't lie, he needs to keep coming, he has to always be there. You need to try and put players around him who work for him, there are a lot of people who want to be like him, but they're not. He's the one who needs to think, the rest have to work.” 

Grondona PS

As Scaloni said, the results do not lie. In three matches against potential Copa America opponents since he took over - Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil - Argentina have failed to win, suffering two defeats, scoring one solitary goal and conceding four. The only victories so far under the coach prior to Tuesday had come against minnows Guatemala and Iraq, and against a trainer-less, under-motivated Mexico

The trainer also affirms that “80 per cent” of his squad for Brazil is decided. Who, then, will wear the No. 1 jersey when Argentina begin their campaign against Colombia in Salvador on June 15? What is his preferred defensive set-up, both in terms of tactics and personnel? How will he solve the conundrum of first-choice midfield pairing Leandro Paredes and Gio Lo Celso, who in their current guise have contributed neither the creative thrust nor solidity required in the engine room? 

Most importantly, Messi's forward partners are also unknown. Lautaro Martinez toiled in frustration against Morocco after finding the net in the Venezuela game, but the Inter star is just one of Argentina's options alongside Sergio Aguero – inexplicably overlooked for this round of fixtures – and club team-mate Mauro Icardi, estranged from the Nerazzurri and yet to show anything like his real ability in international colours. 

Paulo Dybala Argentina 2019

Article continues below

Where that leaves a talent of Paulo Dybala's calibre is yet another topic for uncertainty. The Juventus star once more meandered ineffectively through an Argentina match, failing to put Morocco on the back foot, and four years after making his debut still seems lost and bewildered at this level. That Dybala and Messi have never been able to gel in the same team is a damning indictment on every coach Argentina have seen come and go since 2015, but Scaloni shows no signs he is the man to solve that delicate conundrum. 

The presence of La Pulga will be an undoubted plus once the action gets underway. But if there is one lesson that has been continually impressed on us over the last decade it is that Messi alone is simply not sufficient to win trophies at international level. 

Argentina need a strong team, packed with players familiar with their team-mates and capable of gelling under a coherent tactician who sticks to his guns. On the evidence of these past two games none of that is present, and this inexperienced, disorganised team would need a miracle should they wish to go far in the Copa America. 

Close