It was second versus first in the Estadio Monumental on Saturday afternoon, as Argentina hosted leaders Paraguay in the South American qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. The selección didn’t look particularly hot in front of their own fans, falling a goal down early on after dominating the opening exchanges before going a man down when Carlos Tevez got yet another sending off just before half time. In the second half though, they improved, and the combination of two Olympic gold medalists secured a point just before the hour.
Argentina started as far and away the better side, creating several good chances in the opening minutes even before Juan Román Riquelme smashed a thirty-five yard free kick against the crossbar in the seventh minute. Riquelme was struggling to forge the same understanding with Lionel Messi, as he had during the Olympic Games, but Carlos Tevez and Angel Di María were keeping the Paraguayan defence busy out on the flanks. In the twelfth minute, though, disaster struck. A long ball forward and pressure from the visiting forwards led to Gabriel Heinze heading the ball over Roberto Abbondanzieri and into his own goal. Worse still, he managed to clatter the Getafe goalkeeper in the process, and Abbondanzieri, clutching his knee in agony, had to be replaced by Juan Pablo Carrizo, who probably didn’t expect to be taking the pitch in the Monumental again quite so soon after leaving River Plate.
Paraguay, with numerous players who have either played or currently do play in the Argentine league (Justo Villar, Claudio Morel Rodríguez, Oscar Cardozo et al), didn’t seem at all intimidated by the Monumental, and were seeking to record a first away win over Argentina in 35 years. Their cause was strengthened as they gained in confidence after the goal went their way, and appeared stronger still when, shortly before the break, Carlos Tevez was handed his second red card in three matches for Argentina. The decision was a little harsh – he’d accidentally stamped an opposing defender whilst trying to keep control of the ball near the touchline – but was another blow for the hosts as they sought the equaliser.
At the break, only Javier Mascherano – digging as deep as ever for his country in the stadium he used to play his club football in for River Plate – Lionel Messi and, to some extent, Javier Zanetti merited any real optimism for the hosts. Alfio Basile, seeing the need to replace Tevez in the attack, sacrified Di María, who’d been called up following some impressive performances during the Olympic Football Tournament. Sergio Agüero came on for the Benfica midfielder, and it was he who provided the hosts with their escape in the 59th minute.
Agüero helped exercise more pressure on the Paraguayan defence than had been applied since the goal, and when Riquelme gave Messi the ball just inside the final third, shortly before the hour, another Olympic combination was in the offing. Messi turned, beat his man – as he had so many times already – and played yet another perfect through ball into the left side channel for Agüero to run onto and slide past Villar in the visitors’ goal, to make it 1-1.
The match continued with Argentina exerting the greater pressure and Paraguay operating on the counter. The final half hour was highly entertaining but neither side too many really clear chances, or especially bad misses. At the finish, Argentina remained second in the South American qualification table. Despite the comfortable position, though, not to mention a second consecutive Olympic gold for the juniors (+ two), the fact remains that it’s now a good while since Argentina’s senior squad have truly impressed. Alfio Basile, according to the home press, has four days to sort things out in time for the match away to Peru on Wednesday. In truth, though, perhaps the selección are finally getting the hang of not peaking during qualifying…?