Argentina on the move

Argentina on the move

Coach Alejandro Sabella has built an outfit that is looking in fine fettle ahead of the World Cup

Some 35 years ago, the English club Sheffield United tried to buy the youthful Diego Maradona, and instead ended up signing Alejandro Sabella.

Sabella was no Maradona. He came with two slang nicknames, El Mago (the magician) and Pachorra (the sloth). His skills were decent, but he was overpowered in the English stampede.

 Today, however, Sabella is the toast of Argentina. He is succeeding where Maradona failed as the national team coach. Maradona’s Argentina was wild and wonderful, but in the end horribly undone in defence.

 Sabella has quietly restructured the side, built it, of course, around Lionel Messi, but he also has given it some semblance of reliability and transition between attack and defence.
 Last Tuesday night in Asunción, where Maradona’s side lost en route to the 2010 World Cup, the revamped “Albiceleste” devoured Paraguay, 5-2. Messi scored twice, from penalty kicks, but Sabella has made the star man much more of a catalyst, a leader for Tuesday’s other strikers, Sergio Agüero, Ángel Di María and Maxi Rodríguez.

 “Alejandro has built a great group,” said Di María after the victory that sealed Argentina’s 11th straight qualification to the World Cup final, stretching back to 1974.

 In this group, for example, Messi is not expected to be both playmaker and leader of the attack. Fernando Gago calls the shots, or rather guides the momentum, through the midfield, and responsibility is more evenly divided, as it has to be in a team with real pretensions to winning next year’s World Cup on Brazilian soil.

 “We are on the right path,” commented Messi, whose career total of 37 goals in 83 games for Argentina eclipses Hernàn Crespo in the all-time listing. Only Gabriel Batituta’s record of 56 goals to go for now for the little maestro.

 But that isn’t in his sights or on his mind. Messi now is thinking — Sabella has them all thinking — collectively. “We have already beaten big teams,” the captain, Messi said, “but we still need to make some improvements to be world champions. The World Cup is seven games and you have to be in perfect form.”

It is a measure of Argentina’s progress that the players dare to talk of winning the title. Qualifying with two games to spare in the South American group of nine countries (as host, Brazil is prequalified) always has been the toughest assignment in global soccer.
Until Tuesday, for example, Colombia led the group. One more victory, and Colombia — with its canny way of breaking swiftly from defence to feed the striking instincts of Radamel Falcao and Teófilo Gutiérrez — would also have qualified.

However, Colombia’s game plan was usurped on Tuesday. It lost to two late goals by Edinson Cavani and Cristian Stuani against a Uruguayan team that is the reigning regional champion, and went the furthest among South American teams at the last World Cup in South Africa.

With Cavani and Luis Suàrez in your attack, along with Diego Forlàn when he is still fit and available, you really ought to have a shot at qualifying. Yet until Tuesday’s 2-0 beating of Colombia, Uruguay languished in fifth place. Uruguay still need victories in their final two group games, and even that might mean nothing more than a play-off against Jordan.

South America, you will gather, requires a dogfight even to reach the 32-nation finals that will take place next year on its continent. The qualifying format, with all the nations in the region playing each other, home and away, has no easy matches. The biggest can, and regularly do, fall to the smallest, such as Bolivia, whose advantage is to play home games at high altitude in La Paz.

In Europe, by contrast, certain countries are almost honour-bound to qualify once their name gets a lucky draw in the drawing of lots to decide the groupings. Italy and the Netherlands became the continent’s first qualifiers this week, both from groups in which it would have been difficult to fail. Germany is a game away from joining them, and Belgium is close.

The Asian powers of Iran, Japan and South Korea are already assured of their places, along with Australia, for which FIFA redrew the continental map to make it an Asian contender.

The United States should always qualify in its regional grouping, and did so on Tuesday, though that comes at the despair of a Mexico squad that is in less than its usual form. And surely Costa Rica is the real achiever this time around in that region of North and Central America and the Caribbean? Just being there, being a part of the big event in 2014, is its own Holy Grail. But, as you have read from Messi and others, Argentina is eyeing this Cup as a time and a place where it can fulfill potential.

 And that is where Alex Sabella is working to finally come out of the shadow of Diego Maradona. As players, they were incomparable, but often it is the player who has to work for his living and who has to apply intellect and teamwork who ends up making the better coach.

Everything that one hears from Messi, and from the players around him, suggests that this is a going to be a less flamboyant, less gung-ho, team than last time around. We will not know the strength of Brazil until next year because, excused from the qualifying process, the home side has had such precious little competitive fare.

Winning the Confederations Cup is like winning the rehearsal. Thrashing the Aussies, 6-0, in Brasília, and following that up with a 3-1 victory over Portugal in Boston is good for the soul. But it isn’t tempered by the real stuff where you win or die by the results.