James Young
Sunday June 14th, 2015

After the soporific fare served up by Mexico-Bolivia and Uruguay-Jamaica, this year’s Copa America has suddenly sprung to life. Cruising after first half goals from Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi, Argentina was pegged back by a remarkably resilient Paraguay side in chilly La Serena, with Nelson Haedo Valdez and Lucas Barrios scoring to earn the underdogs a remarkable 2–2 tie while exposing some familiar Argentine failings.

This game should have been dead and buried by halftime. Argentina’s share of possession hovered around the 75% mark for most of the first 45 minutes. Messi was ably supported by the busy Javier Pastore and Ever Banega breaking from midfield and looked bright and inventive. Aguero lurked menacingly in the box, eager to snack on the results of all the smooth passing and movement.

Both Argentinia goals, when they came, featured a generous helping hand from unfortunate fullback Miguel Samudio. First a sloppy back pass gifted Aguero an easy finish to break Paraguay’s stubborn resistance in the 26th minute. A few minutes later, Samudio brought down Messi in the area for a soft penalty. Argentina’s captain got up to tuck the spot kick away.

At that stage, Argentina’s bid to win the competition and end a trophy drought of almost biblical proportions looked to be firmly on track. It is now 22 years since two Gabriel Batistuta goals against Mexico led the country to its last major trophy, the 1993 Copa America. The pressure to change that situation will be intense here in Chile. Six fruitless World Cups and seven Copas later, coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino knows it is time that this fanatical soccer nation found a way to ease its pain.

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While most of the team’s top players are still in their prime, the long gaps between international competitions means that time may be beginning to dwindle for this talented generation. “This group of players cannot finish their cycle with the national team without winning a title,” Martino is on record as saying.

No one will be feeling the pressure more than Messi, who had a mixed bag of a tournament during last year’s World Cup. He carried the team through the early going, scoring all four of his goals in the group phase, but then seemed to run out of steam as the going got tough in the knockout stages. He played well by the standards of most mortals, but looked off-key in comparison with the celestial rhythms with which he conducts the band in Barcelona. As a result, there were more than a few raised eyebrows when he was awarded the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player.

While a long, draining European season may have been part of the reason for Messi’s heavy legs towards the end, his World Cup fadeout represented a continuing conundrum for Argentina: How can it find a way for the player to recreate his fabulous Barcelona pyrotechnics for the national side? It is a thorny issue; if any other player had produced Messi’s form in a blue and white shirt, particularly now Aguero has established himself as his first choice partner in crime up front, few questions would be asked. For Messi, however, being merely good will never be good enough.

Paraguay will care little about any of that. Coach Ramon Diaz (an Argentine himself) and his players have more important things to worry about – like how to keep their feet on the ground after this remarkable comeback.

For there will surely be few greater upsets at this Copa America than this, a clash between a team that a year ago was playing in the World Cup final and a side that finished bottom of the South American qualifying group for the same tournament, when it lost ten out of 16 games. The attacking power on display seemed to tell the story, pitting Argentina’s all-world superstars against the likes of Lucas Barrios, once a promising talent who is now close to attaining journeyman status, and 33-year-old veteran Roque Santa Cruz.

But despite all Argentina’s possession and neat passing and movement, the Paraguay players kept their heads throughout. They contested every challenge vigorously, and as their vaunted opposition grew more profligate and complacent, mounted a stirring comeback. First Valdez finished off a pass from Nestor Ortigoza to give the underdog hope. After Valdez and Samudio narrowly missed chances, Barrios struck a dramatic last minute equalizer past goalie Sergio Romero. The Argentine players looked shell-shocked. 

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Martino is familiar with such Paraguayan heroics. He was the head coach of La Albirroja when it reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 2010 and the Copa America final in 2011. Such performances reflect Paraguay’s reputation, both footballing and otherwise, for fearsome, stubborn resilience.

Never was that spirit more evident than in the 1990s and early years of this century, when players such as goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert and defensive stalwarts Celso Ayala, Carlos Gamarra and Francisco Arce led one of South America’s smallest and most impoverished footballing nations to four consecutive World Cups between 1998 and 2010.

Paraguay’s second half performance here will provide hope of a return to such glory days. Especially as, having only taken over last December, Diaz has said that Paraguay’s main objective is to build a team to be ready for the long South American World Cup qualifying campaign that lies ahead. This result will give his side a tremendous confidence boost.

For Martino and Argentina, however, the game poses a number of questions. The most troubling is the seemingly interminable dilemma of how to balance all that attacking flair with the defensive due diligence required to mount a successful, trophy-winning campaign. Argentina has some excellent defenders—notably Valencia’s powerful Nicolas Otamendi, a former boxer in his youth—and all looked comfortable here in the first half.

After Valdez’s goal, however, Paraguay was able to break forward seemingly at will, with large spaces opening up in midfield and in front of Romero. Perhaps it was complacency, but Argentina was pulled out of position too often in a game that should have been won easily, with even the normally peerless Javier Mascherano unable to bring order to the chaos. Martino’s predecessor Alejandro Sabella tempered some of his team’s flair with pragmatism at the World Cup, and the result was an appearance in the final. Argentina may need to do the same here, if that long, agonizing trophy drought is ever to come to an end.

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