Some quick thoughts on Argentina’s World Cup qualifying, and South America more generally

Last Friday and this Tuesday just gone were good days for the Argentine national football team. For the first time in the current World Cup qualifying campaign, they won back-to-back matches (3-0 against Uruguay on Friday, 2-1 away to Chile last night), and now sit on top of the CONMEBOL qualiying table with twenty points, three ahead of nearest challengers Ecuador (although Colombia, just a point further back, have a game in hand). The attack, lead by captain Lionel Messi, is going from strength to strength and already they’re within sight of their points total from the last campaign (under Diego Maradona’s tutelage, they qualified for South Africa 2010 with 28 points.

The reason I’d be most encouraged, if I were Argentine, by these recent results, though, is that Tuesday night’s game was a really tough one for them. On the face of it, an unsteady second half performance away to a Chile side who, with a bit more composure, might have at least drawn the match might seem worrying. I think it was encouraging for another reason, though: it gave the defence a good workout, and one that they did very well in.

We know Argentina’s attack is strong. It features Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero, and even so no-one in their right mind would suggest that either of those players are anything like the side’s key component. With Lionel Messi having put in just one drab display (away to Peru last month) in the last year and a bit for Argentina now, it’s clear that the days when some individuals – however misguided – could claim he didn’t match his Barcelona form when playing for his country are long past.

What’s less impressive is the defence. Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago are evolving into a superb deep midfield pair, but behind them, Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernández are at a much earlier stage of their development, both as players and as a partnership. Argentina’s attack has been so impressive throughout 2012 that the defence hasn’t been put under real pressure (an exception might be the July friendly against Brazil in New Jersey, won 4-3 by Argentina, but ‘no such thing as a friendly’ clichés notwithstanding, that match was never going to be treated with the seriousness of a competitive fixture). In Santiago, Chile pressed and harried, and ended up throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Argentina, but couldn’t find a breakthrough until the final minute.

Partly, the pressure came from Pablo Zabaleta being shifted to left back in light of Marcos Rojo’s injury picked up against Uruguay. Zabaleta’s able to play on either side of defence, but Ángel Di María didn’t afford him as much protection on the left as Fernando Gago does on the right of Argentina’s narrow midfield, and Chile right back Mauricio Isla was able to storm forward. Chile ended up with thirteen shots to Argentina’s twelve, and made comfortably more successful passes – Isla, at right back, made more successful passes than anyone in Argentina’s team. And Marcelo Alfonso Díaz, in central midfield, made more than Isla.

Against this resistance, and a Chile side who knew they had to put in a much improved performance after coming in for criticism lately, Argentina’s young defence held firm and they got a win that was perhaps a bit fortunate. They’ll hope for more tests before the next World Cup, but the signs from last night seem to suggest to me that Alejandro Sabella’s plan is working, little by little.

Elsewhere on the continent, I’ve really liked the look of Colombia. The world and his dog can see what a fantastic player Radamel Falcao García is – though whether Harry Redknapp would put him on Gareth Bale’s level I’m not sure – but James ‘Ham-es’ Rodríguez was also really good on Friday when they beat Paraguay 2-0. When Colombia visit Argentina, it’s going to be a cracking match. Ecuador, too, are looking good, and getting results away from the altitude of Quito which are keeping them in with a fantastic chance of qualifying. Everyone else has fallen away a little, and Óscar Washington Tabárez will have some thinking to do between now and March in particular as he tries to stem the bleeding from Uruguay’s recent wounds, but with seven games still to go, the remaining places are anyone’s to win.

You can follow the latest news from the selección and Argentina’s foreign legion of players, as well as the domestic championship and the ever entertaining/tragic/infuriating capers of Julio Grondona & chums direct from Buenos Aires with HEGS on Twitter. If you’ve not signed up yet you can do so here. You can also join the official HEGS Facebook group, to keep up to date with the latest posts on the blog and discuss things with other fans. You’ll find it here. And remember to bookmark Hand Of Pod, our Argentine football podcast, or if you prefer you can subscribe to it on iTunes here.

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