Room for improvement or was that the best Argentina can be?

The Rio Report

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With the jubilantly relieved Argentina squad still unable to put the decisive moment into words, it was up to the defeated Ottmar Hitzfeld to describe that frantic finale at Arena Corinthians.

“In the last three minutes we saw everything that can happen in the life of a coach,” the retiring Switzerland coach exhaled.

“Everything” isn’t exactly an exaggeration. First, there was the best player in the world finally stepping out and then stepping up, as Lionel Messi played the pass that opened up the pitch. Then, Angel Di Maria enjoyed something of a personal redemption as he ended a hugely frustrating performance with the most cathartic of crescendos. Joy poured out, but soon gave way to utter panic, as Switzerland came so astonishingly close to the most dramatic of equalisers.

You really couldn’t fit much more into such a short period of football.

The remarkable aspect was that “everything” followed 117 minutes of absolutely nothing.


The wonder is this is all that Argentina have to give.

Not for the first time in this World Cup, a notionally decisive result led to far more questions than answers for Alejandro Sabella’s team.

For a start, it is fair to ask whether such an asinine display was a consequence of Switzerland bullheadedly putting so many players back, or simply a lack of ideas from Argentina.

Then there is the lack of players performing anywhere close to Messi’s level, not least the erratic Di Maria.


Finally, there is the grandest question of all. When does this World Cup get to witness the real Argentina? Or... is this it?

It was telling that, when Javier Mascherano was asked what this team still lacks, he momentarily went conspicuously quiet.

“Well... it’s very difficult,” the midfielder eventually answered. “It’s not just about what we’re missing. I like to look at the positive aspects.

“In the second half of extra-time, they had less legs, they couldn’t attack in the same way, we could press higher, and we started to win a lot of the ball in their half.”

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The deeper worry for Argentina, however, is that Switzerland were swaying for that to actually happen. Sabella’s side couldn’t force the issue themselves.

In fact, for long stretches of the game, it looked like any semblance of a gameplan had completely evaporated. There were huge gaps right across the pitch, reflecting the dysfunctional nature of each of their formations so far. Regardless of what system they play, there still seems this disconnect in the team.

It led to a bit of a breakdown.

Towards the end, it was if they had forgotten how to properly attack, other than unimaginatively swing the ball towards goal or feeding it to one of Di Maria or Messi.

The captain perhaps revealed a little more than he intended, too, when discussing those anxious latter stages.

“Like everybody, I was very nervous, because we couldn’t score,” Messi said. “We knew if we made a single mistake we would have been going home.”


Mascherano picked up the theme.

“Everything begins to have an effect.”

It was the kind of thing that could have had a real effect on the team’s cohesion and confidence... until all was transformed in an instant.

Now, there’s no accounting for the psychological boost of such a moment late on. Each of the players mentioned that element in the mixed zone.

“A match that you win in the second period of extra-time, obviously you really suffer,” Pablo Zabaleta said, before offering a crucial caveat. “But those are the games you most enjoy because of the way you do it.”

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The wonder is whether it allows the side to finally enjoy their football, to shake off the “pressure” so many mentioned.

This, after all, was oddly something of a milestone for Argentina. The 1-0 win over Switzerland marked the first time they had actually beaten - as opposed to drawing and winning on penalties - a team other than Mexico in a World Cup knock-out game since 1990.

That tournament in Italy also represents the last time Argentina got to the last four. So, as they prepare to face Belgium, they find themselves at a stage that has proven something of a barrier; a mental block arguably worse than Switzerland’s 10-man blockade.

“Now is the moment of truth,” Mascherano said.

That is certainly the case.

It is time for the true Argentina to show themselves, unless this is actually it.

Miguel Delaney is based in Rio and covering Argentina for us at the World Cup finals - you can find him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney

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