It seems strange to imagine that a game boasting the talents of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Mauro Icardi, Angel Di Maria and Paulo Dybala could possibly finish goal-less. But a breakthrough never looked on the cards as Argentina and Uruguay ground each other out for a 0-0 draw in the Estadio Centenario, a result that will leave the hosts far happier than the new-look Albiceleste.
Great expectation accompanied Jorge Sampaoli's first competitive game at the helm, as the promise of a new era for underachieving Argentina loomed on the horizon. There certainly were changes, most notably in a new-look three-man defence and the trio of Messi, Dybala and Icardi up front, bringing together the Barcelona wizard with his two young apprentices for the first time.
But against a backline seemingly moulded from the same eternal concrete that holds together the Centenario 87 years after the venerable old ground was first opened, Argentina's stars came up short. In a classic battle between irresistible force and immovable object the outcome was a tense stalemate, during which goalkeepers Sergio Romero and Fernando Muslera were little more than privileged spectators for large swathes of the 90 minutes.
Part of the visitors' deficiencies will surely be ironed out with time. The three men at the back held up relatively well against the harrying of Suarez and Cavani, failing most evidently at times when playing the ball out from deep as Sampaoli's philosophy dictates.
7-6 - Despite having 74.4% of the possession in the first half, #Argentina had fewer touches (6) than #Uruguay (7) in the opp. box. Styles. pic.twitter.com/rDjsZ6F3EA — OptaJavier (@OptaJavier) 1 de septiembre de 2017
Messi, Dybala and Icardi, meanwhile, were not the electric force all Argentina was hoping to see. The Juventus man looked out of sorts and unsure of his role in the team, scurrying ineffectively across the pitch before coming off for Javier Pastore late on. Icardi was starved of the ball, forcing just one relatively comfortable save out of Muslera with a snapshot off balance.
A chronic lack of service from midfield exacerbated Argentina's toothlessness. Marcos Acuna toiled out of position on the right wing and was the first man off for the Albiceleste, while Di Maria had one of those infuriating evenings where every decision he made appeared to be the wrong one. Cross after cross was fired in by the PSG winger, with precious few finding an Argentina shirt. It was all too easy for Uruguay to anticipate, with a solid wall of three centre-midfielders forming a curtain in front of the defence and Cristian Rodriguez the sole partner of Suarez and Cavani on the rare occasions Oscar Tabarez's men broke on the counter.
Once again it was left to Messi to come up with some magic, and he never gave up despite a level of attention from the Celeste markers that can best be described as asphyxiating. An outstanding free-kick from 30 metres out was pawed around the post by Muslera, the closest Argentina came to breaking the deadlock, but it was not enough to open up the game and give the fans who had crossed the Rio de la Plata in support something to cheer about.
Indeed, the biggest celebration of the night for Sampaoli will have come from events across the continent in South America. A shock 3-0 thrashing for Chile at the hands of Paraguay drags the Roja down level on points with Argentina, although they remain in a direct qualification place for the 2018 World Cup by virtue of goal difference.
That result on its own ensured that a potentially disastrous result for Sampaoli's chances of making Russia was instead merely disappointing. Tuesday's clash against Venezuela now gives the nation the chance to pile pressure on Chile, with the Vinotinto already eliminated at the foot of the South Americans and playing for the not insignificant prize of national pride. Chile, meanwhile, face a daunting trip to altitude away to Bolivia, and are likely to face a hostile reception after benefitting from a sanction that saw the Andeans docked points for fielding ineligible players.
If the Albiceleste can better their rival's result, then World Cup qualification will be back in their own hands. But it is clear that Sampaoli faces a race against time to mould this team into the neat-passing, dynamic collective that is so easy to draw up on a chalkboard but a different prospect once the theory is transplanted onto the pitch. The jury is still out after this underwhelming first game, and Argentina must improve, and fast, if they wish to cement their place in Russia.