Five Points: Argentina pins hopes on Messi, Switzerland faces defensive concerns
JUN 25, 2014 11:30p ET
Lionel Messi coped with the burden of expectation as he embarked upon this World Cup journey. His brilliance with Barcelona never translated as neatly to his national side. He flickered to life from time to time, but his country wanted him to grab this tournament by the scruff of its neck and take his team to the promised land.
Messi’s displays in the first three games of this World Cup reinforce his ability to fulfill those expectations at the highest levels. This edition of Five Points kicks off with a look at Messi’s latest influential display and Argentina’s dependency on its brightest star.
Argentina will advance as far as Messi can take it
There are no alternatives for Argentina right now, no methods to compensate for a poor match from its biggest star. This group – as evidenced by the 3-2 victory over Nigeria to confirm top spot in Group F on Wednesday – relies on Lionel Messi to deliver the expected results and tear apart the opposition.
Messi can shoulder the load based upon his first three performances in Brazil. He scored twice in this match and served the corner that ultimately prompted the third. He sliced and strutted through the attacking third with intent. He showed all of hallmarks of an in-form player capable of slicing apart a competent opponent.
Argentina must shore up its options elsewhere in case of emergency, though. Angel Di Maria created problems for the Nigerians with his running, but he is the only complementary player to really find his footing in the early stages of this tournament. Sergio Agüero (before his injury-enforced departure) and Gonzalo Higuain continue to operate on the periphery of games, while the service from the wide areas remains a concern (three of 20 crosses completed, per Opta statistics).
Alejandro Sabella may have stumbled onto a potential solution to his width concerns by replacing the injured Agüero with Ezequiel Lavezzi, but he may not persist with the alternative heading into the round of 16 against Switzerland if Agüero is deemed fit enough to play. That particular selection headache is not top of the list of priorities, though. Sabella must instead focus on shoring up his defense (tracking the movement of Josip Drmic and Xherdan Shaqiri could prove a problem on the break) and setting the stage for his star to thrive once again.
Soft core may stop Switzerland from challenging Argentina
Switzerland produced an excellent attacking performance to claim a 3-0 victory over Honduras in Manaus and seal a date with Argentina on Tuesday. Drmic impressed with his willing runs into the channels and his ability to bring others into the play as the lone striker, while Shaqiri shrugged off criticism from home to hit a hat trick. The streamlined approach – including quick combinations through midfield and vertical balls from the fullbacks up the line – and the clever movement tore the Hondurans apart.
Argentina may have its defensive problems, but it will present a sturdier opponent. Switzerland isn’t worried about creating chances, though. Ottmar Hitzfeld must find a way to stop Lionel Messi. His options – particularly in the wake of Steve von Bergen’s exit – are thin at best.
Hitzfeld replaced the disappointing Philippe Senderos with the promising Fabian Schär for the match against the Hondurans, but the problems in central defense persisted. There isn’t a leader on the back four right now, a player capable of organizing and sorting the assignments along the way. Problems crop up when Schär dives into the wrong tackle or slides into the wrong spot or Djourou finds himself forced to defend just about anyone one-versus-one. Stefan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez do what they can to help, but they are attacking fullbacks first and foremost.
Honduras – not a creative team by any measure – generated and then subsequently squandered chances several opportunities (10 in total, per Opta statistics) against this back four. The thought of Messi charging forward toward this group is enough to make Hitzfeld’s stomach turn. Unless the veteran boss can devise a solution or the Swiss simply run riot against the fragile Argentine shape, the Swiss are likely headed home.
France must rely on its counter to march deep into the tournament
Didier Deschamps opted to make several changes in the frustrating 0-0 draw against 10-man Ecuador to close out the Group E commitments. The enduring presence of Karim Benzema (always a threat, though repelled four times by man-of-the-match Alexander Dominguez) and the continued vibrancy moving forward hinted at the path to the last eight.
France isn’t a particularly good defensive side, but it can soak up pressure for spells and lay the groundwork to break quickly with the opposition stretched. The firm base in midfield allows Les Blues to counter effectively with Mathieu Valbuena posing a threat on the right and Benzema freed up to cause problems on the left when Olivier Giroud plays through the middle.
The attacking trio – plus the overlapping Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra – unsettles the opposition with its movement and its willingness to combine in good areas. Benzema presents more of a threat in his natural left-sided position because it gives him a chance to cut inside and go directly to goal.
If France can play vertically out of the back into space, then it will find gaps to exploit in most teams given the options at its disposal. Its overall strength probably makes this side a slight favorite over Nigeria in the round of 16, but its work on the counter will likely determine if this group can progress even further.
Organization and shape remain key to Nigeria’s hopes
Super Eagles boss Stephen Keshi grasps the need to establish firm defensive principles. He wants his team to keep its shape against better opponents and sets out his group with all of the tools required to do so. The plans didn’t quite work against Lionel Messi and Argentina, but the steadfast defense remains the key to potential victory against France.
Keshi relies on his central midfielders to steady matters. John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi patrol earnestly in front of Kenneth Omeruo and Joseph Yobo. They close down the opposition on the break and limit the time and space afforded in front of the back four. Their work usually restricts the opportunities to attack the defense directly and forces the play into the wider areas. Omeruo – particularly in the second game against Bosnia – is a promising young defender increasingly capable of shouldering the burden, while Yobo supplies leadership and a rugged presence at this stage of his career.
The potential problem for Nigeria is in France’s left channel. If France persists with Benzema on the left (and it should), then the in-form striker will encounter Efe Ambrose as his primary adversary. Ambrose continues to pick up poor positions after surging forward and leaves room for opposing players to attack down his flank. His rickety performances place some pressure on Onazi to drift over to compensate as Benzema drifts in field.
If Nigeria can blunt France on the break, keep its shape better than it did against Argentina and restrict Benzema’s forays in the final third, then it could find ways to hurt Les Bleus moving forward. Nigeria presents plenty of issues when it storms forward, while Emanuel Emenike presents a persistent threat as he leads the line. All of those efforts, however, rest on Keshi’s ability to restore the solidity at the back.
Expect Ghana to press the initiative when it meets Portugal in its Group G finale (12:00p.m. ET). Portugal enters this match with a raft of injuries and a set of heavy legs after playing USA in Manaus on Sunday. Ghana must increase the cadence of the game at the outset and test whether the Portuguese can cope with the strain. If the Black Stars can ally a bit of incisiveness with their likely advantage pushing forward, then they could claim the points and pile the pressure on the Americans to snatch a result against Germany.
Algeria meets Russia in perhaps the decisive match in Group H (4:00p.m. ET). The circumstances – Algeria sits two points clear of third-place Russia and almost certainly qualifies for the round of 16 with a draw – may force Russia to push out a bit more than Fabio Capello would prefer. If the Russians leave themselves exposed, then Algeria can break quickly to punish them. Algeria may find itself better off chasing the game at the outset given the Russians’ lack of pace, but Vahid Halilhodzic’s conservatism will likely lead to a more pragmatic team selection. Korea Republic can still qualify for the round of 16 with a big victory over Belgium (4:00p.m. ET) and some help, but its performance against Algeria and its pliable central defense suggest a revival isn’t on the cards.