When Walter Ayovi’s wonder goal flew past the outstretched arms of Argentina goalkeeper Mariano Andujar and into the back of the net, things began to look frighteningly similar to Argentina’s 6-1 defeat at the hands of Bolivia in April. After looking like the better of the two sides for the first seventy minutes, Diego Maradona’s men crumbled following Avyovi’s strike.
In the early moments, there was no question Argentina was the better team, and after just three minutes, Lionel Messi ran at the Ecuador defense and laid the ball to Tevez, whose left footed shot forced a kick save from goalkeeper Marcelo Elizaga, a recurring theme through out the match.
Messi dribbled through a host of defenders just minutes later, but Maxi Rodriguez was just offsides when Messi slipped him through on goal. In the eleventh minute, Tevez won the ball in midfield and freed up the much maligned Gabriel Heinze down the left side. The Real Madrid defender put in a perfect cross to Barcelona’s Messi, but somehow the future FIFA World Player of the Year missed the wide open goal opportunity.
Messi’s miss certainly summed up Argentina’s day, but it was by no means the low point. In the 28th minute, Messi played Tevez through on goal, and the former Boca Juniors striker was upended spectacularly by the on rushing Elizaga, who should have been sent off as the last man denying a clear goal scoring opportunity. Instead, he received only a yellow card.
The referee played advantage at first, but Maxi drilled his shot into the side, netting with the wide-open goal. Nonetheless, Argentina still had a penalty opportunity, which was taken by Tevez. Messi and Maxi both take penalty shots regularly for their clubs, and Tevez had not taken one since the Carling Cup final in January. Tevez went on to hit a truly pathetic penalty after an over exaggerated run up to the ball, in which Elizaga saved easily.
Although Argentina went into the half with the score still tied at zero, it appeared as though they should have been leading. Maradona perhaps put it best by saying to FIFA.com, “They didn’t do anything in the first half. In the second half, they got a couple of rebounds and they scored two goals. If we had scored a goal, it would have finished the game off.”
While his statement is clearly true, the bottom line is that Argentina could not capitalize on their many opportunities, and then fell apart in the last twenty minutes. In the second half, Messi went on one of his trademark runs but could only fire into the side netting. Before that, Heinze played a ball across the area looking for Messi. The flailing Elizaga got a hand to it, but could only deflect it into the path of Fernando Gago, whose low shot was saved by Elizaga.
Maradona cannot be blamed for missing so many chances, but he does hold the responsibility to the players participating. Although tactically the game plan was sound, the players Maradona continuously uses are not the best the country has to offer.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than when Argentina went down a goal and turned to the 34 year old Juan Sebastian Veron as their super sub. The former Manchester United and Chelsea midfielder added absolutely nothing to the game. His passes were mis-timed and his touch was terribly off.
Argentina must now treat each of their last four games as if they were part of the knockout stages of the World Cup Finals itself. The first two of these take place against two of the top teams in the group: Brazil at home, before traveling to Asuncion to face Paraguay.
Argentina is five points behind Brazil, and a victory against their arch-rivals would go a long way to ensuring a spot in South Africa. Paraguay lead Argentina by just two points, but La Seleccion must beat Brazil to keep pace, as one would expect Paraguay to wipe the floor with Bolivia at home in their next match.
What has happened to Argentina since they were ranked number one in the world two summers ago? In 2007, Argentina was at their best, tearing through the Copa America, where they lost tragically in the final to Brazil. In that tournament, Coco Basile put Argentina in their best possible formation and system, one that revolved around Juan Roman Riquelme, who has scored 18 goals in 54 games for Argentina, including five in that tournament.
Since Riquelme fell out with Maradona, Argentina has missed his passing range, set pieces, and his ability to score from midfield. In that same Copa America, Basile relied on Hernan Crespo to spearhead the attack.
Crespo, 35 goals in 66 caps, is another player who Maradona has been unable to replace. On that team, Messi was able to play out wide, or just behind Crespo, while allowing Riquelme to be the creator. Since Maradona will not apologize to Riquelme, and Diego Milito has shown none of the qualities of Crespo, it seems Maradona must turn to two players he has refused to call up: Gonzalo Higuain and Esteban Cambiaso.
Ideally, Cucho Cambiaso would partner Javier Mascherano in midfield, with Higuian leading the attack. Tevez could then be allowed to play in a deeper role, something he does regularly for United, and Messi could play more of a free role out wide, or cutting in just behind Higuain.
If Maradona does not make drastic changes soon, he will be watching the World Cup at home next summer with everyone else.