Sergio Batista gets the best out of Argentina’s stars

By Jonathan Wilson
lionel messi
Lionel Messi (Photo: Claudio Pozo)

lionel messi

It was, it should be stressed, only a friendly, but nevertheless, the most eye-catching result from Tuesday’s selection of international clashes was surely Argentina’s 4-1 win over Spain.

Sergio Batista could not have hoped for anything better as he seeks to become Diego Maradona’s successor. Julio Grondona, the head of the Argentinian FA, seemed to favour him over Alex Sabella anyway, largely because his dream on appointing Maradona was to resurrect the World Cup-winning team of 1986 on the bench, with Batista and Jorge Luis Brown working with the youth sides and Carlos Bilardo as technical director. If he does turn to Batista, that scheme at least remains alive and valid.

But what does this mean beyond the issue of the Argentina succession? Is it a sign that Spain are fading and may not be a force in 2012? Or that Argentina are rising and should be installed as favourites for next summer’s Copa America, which they will host?

It was only Spain’s third defeat since 2006. USA in the Confederations Cup and Switzerland in the World Cup—the two other sides to beat them in that time—sat deep and looked to frustrate Spain; Argentina showed that sides can prosper by attacking Spain.

That said, it should be remembered that this was not a full-strength Spain side – although it wasn’t a second string either, despite three changes in the back four – and that they had travelled 6000 miles to play that one game. Given they played a friendly in Mexico last month, it seems fairly clear that this is part of a campaign to win votes for the Spain-Portugal bid to host the World Cup in 2018; England, similarly pursuing Grondona’s favour, are in negotiations to play two friendlies against Argentina.

And, in truth, it was a slightly odd game. Two early goals had settled Argentina long before the Pepe Reina mistake that gifted them the game-deciding third, and Spain went on to hit the woodwork three times. That’s not to say that Argentina did not deserve their win—they did—but 4-1 was highly flattering. There is certainly no reason for Spain to panic.

Argentina, however, can take real encouragement from the performance. Lionel Messi was exceptional, producing arguably his best performance in an Argentina shirt. He said last week that he is enjoying his time with Argentina because their tactics are now resembling Barcelona’s, and while he may not have an overlapping right-back drawing defenders away as he cuts infield, he was at least back on the right as Batista picked the same front three that played at the World Cup, but arranged them differently. Messi was on the right rather than in the hole, with Carlos Tevez to the left of Gonzalo Higuain.

Even more significantly, the key tactical issue from the World Cup was addressed. That Javier Mascherano could become isolated at the back of the midfield became apparent against Mexico, and was brutally exposed by Germany in the quarter-final, when Bastian Schweinsteiger revelled in being given 40-50 yards of space to attack.

It is easy to attack Maradona, and he has probably taken too much flak for what happened in South Africa, but his failure to do anything about a clear deficiency was crippling. Batista, significantly, brought in two players who didn’t even make Maradona’s World Cup squad – Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega.

Cambiasso and Mascherano together gave Argentina’s back four far more protection, while Banega was able to link with the front three. He is no Xavi or even a Cesc Fabregas, but he does have the blend of energy and creativity to give greater backbone to the side. The only concern, and it is a long-term one for the World Cup in 2014 rather than for the Copa America, is that three of the back four were over 30. That, though, is an issue for the future.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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