Argentina win Group B after hard-fought victory over Jamaica

Gonzalo Higuain's winner was enough to give Argentina a 1-0 victory over Jamaica on Saturday night.

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Vina del Mar, CHILE —

It was underwhelming, but for Argentina it was mission accomplished.

A 1-0 win played at walking pace said little about either Gerardo Martino’s side or about Jamaica, which lost by a single goal for the third straight game, but it assured Argentina went through as group-winners, and so Argentina will play back in this stadium in the third quarterfinal.

With Paraguay and Uruguay drawing 1-1 earlier on Saturday, Argentina knew it was through to the quarterfinal even with a defeat while Jamaica was out — more drama killed by CONMEBOL’s baffling refusal to play the final group games simultaneously as is customary in every other continental tournament. The only question was whether it would go through first (and face probably the third-placed team in Group C), second (and face the second placed team in Group C) or third (and face, probably, Chile in Santiago).

And even that intrigue had effectively disappeared within 11 minutes as Gonzalo Higuain, starting in place of the rested Sergio Aguero, turned sharply onto an Angel Di Maria cross to put Argentina ahead. The game had been up to that point all Argentina and it continued t be so, an exhibition of slow possession, occasionally enlivened by a sudden spurt from Lionel Messi or Di Maria. Higuain was a persistent threat, but there’s a sense that he perhaps slows the game down and that whatever he did he was unlikely to replace Aguero as Martino’s first choice. Besides, this was such a pedestrian game it couldn’t be considered a true test.

Argentinian fans predominated in the 21,000-capacity Estadio Sausalito – there were probably only around 50 Jamaicans – but it was striking how, as in La Serena, they were silent for long spells, so much so that the players could be heard shouting on the pitch. The lack of tension, perhaps, affected them too, and they simply waited for an exhibition to unfold. That said, there had also been long quiet periods in the last group game, the 1-0 win over Uruguay in La Serena; it may simply be that the fans who have made the trip west across the Andes from Argentina are not the same as those who raucously took over Brazil last year.

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The avalanche of goals that was perhaps anticipated never quite materialized. Higuain lobbed Dwayne Miller but hit the bar. Di Maria, having charged the length of the field beat the keeper but saw Kemar Lawrence hack the ball off the line. Miller made an acrobatic tip-over from Di Maria. This was, essentially, a training match. Jamaica had defended well in its first two games in the tournament, both 1-0 defeats, but here, already eliminated, it seemed lethargic, content simply to watch Argentina passing the ball around.

A 1-1 draw would have meant Argentina and Paraguay having to draw lots to determine who was top and who was second, bit remote a possibility as that seemed, Messi stayed on after half-time. He wasn’t rested as Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal had been by Chile on Friday.

This was Messi’s 100th game for Argentina. It’s a milestone that is being reached increasingly frequently these days – Messi is the 328th player to amass a century of caps, of whom only 60 made their debuts before 1990, but he is only the fifth Argentinian, and, given he is only 27, Javier Zanetti’s all-time record of 143 games for Argentina should be within his reach. It was a less than euphoric centenary, although his lack of centrality at least showed how many other potential match-winners Argentina have: unlike Brazil, it is not dependent on one star, brilliant as that star may be.

Argentina can justifiably argue that it had by far the better of the game and had enough chances to have won by a wide margin. Di Maria, Argentina’s liveliest and sharpest player on the night hit the bar with a curler. Miller made a stretching save to keep out a Messi chip. Javier Pastore fired a shot across the face of goal and just wide.

With 18 minutes to go there came the pantomime of Carlos Tevez’s arrival from the bench, replacing Higuain. The roar that greeted him suggests how popular he remains and within seconds he had barrelled through to win a corner. But that was it. In the final minutes there was even the brief flickering of a Jamaican threat, and the thought that Argentina has been careless late in games in this tournament.

But any danger was more theoretical than actual. It was soporific, but Argentina did what it had to do.