There was little to separate Brazil and Argentina ahead of the Copa America, with a classic final between the two countries seen by many as a mere formality; even more so after the draw guaranteed that, by winning their respective groups, the two favourites would avoid one another before the final showdown in Buenos Aires on July 24th.
But as the tournament passed its second round of fixtures, what was once a certainty is looking increasingly doubtful. Having each played twice, both remains without a victory in four matches, and they’ve managed just three goals between them. It’s make or break.
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What a difference a goal doesn’t always make
When Jadson fired his side into an underserved lead five minutes before half-time in Cordoba on Saturday, you could almost hear the two hundred million sighs of relief back in Brazil. Prior to his strike, the Brazilian fans were singing for the return of Kaka.
But the goal changed everything. Gone was the memory of a goalless draw with Venezuela. A collective weight was lifted. Passes began to find teammates. Flicks and tricks were finally coming off. Even Paulo Henrique Ganso, who had looked a shadow of himself in the two hours of football up until that point, found his rhythm, consummately lifting over Dario Veron’s head and scurrying around the other side. The pendulum had swung. Now the fans sang the name of coach Mano Menezes.
And then came the halftime whistle. And it swung right back.
Brazil returned from the break without their goal scorer, but, more importantly, devoid of any of the swagger they exhibited in those final minutes before the break. “Mano talked to me and explained he was taking me off because of the yellow card [I received],” revealed Jadson, who had replaced Robinho in the starting line-up. Aside from the goal, however, the Shakthar man had made little impact other than the caution. The same problems were evident, as Paraguay’s Nestor Ortigoza destroyed all before him in the midfield skirmish.
Brazil started the second half poorly, and then, unexpectedly, Menezes’ steadfast full-backs became the villains of the piece. Both were caught up field for Paraguay’s first goal, leaving Roque Santa Cruz to stroke home the equalizer. When Dani Alves surrendered possession to Cristian Riveros in his own penalty box 12 minutes later, Nelson Valdez was on hand to give Paraguay a deserved lead.
“The team once again didn’t perform as well as expected,” admitted Brazil left back Andre Santos.
“We have to get better,” said Dani Alves.
“It’s clear we have to improve,” confessed Lucas Leiva.
Fred’s late equalizer, in the words of Lance! “saved Brazil from embarrassment.”
“Those who criticize you today, applauded you yesterday and will certainly applaud you tomorrow!” said Neymar on his Twitter account.
Tomorrow is fast approaching. Brazil faces a final group game against Ecuador, and a performance worthy of that ovation has suddenly become imperative.
It Ain’t Barca
Messi simply doesn’t perform for his country as he does for Barcelona – or so was school of thought in the FIFA World player of the Year’s homeland – so Argentina coach Sergio Batista came up with the perfect answer: be Barcelona.
“I like the football that Barcelona plays,” Batista wrote in Ole last year, “I believe everyone should fight to play in this fashion.” ‘Checho’ has been fighting ever since.
Messi was moved central, mimicking his role at Camp Nou. The other Barcelona player in the squad, Javier Mascherano, retained the captaincy and Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso were recalled to sit in front of him. Javier Zanetti returned from the international wilderness, too, tasked with providing the all-important attacking thrust from full-back. Everything was set.
Only it wasn’t. And after two punchless draws, it still isn’t.
“Messi may be a false nine, but without the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, the other ten are also false.” wrote Ezequiel Fernandez Moores in La Nacion last week.
“[Barcelona] is a team [built over] four years,” Messi’s father, Jorge, told the same newspaper, “the national team is years away from achieving that stability.”
Mascherano is among the many leaping to Messi’s defense, insisting the team’s failings are collective, and there has been no shortage of suggestions for exactly how Batista can ‘fix’ the Selección. “I would play (Javier) Pastore, (Angel) Di Maria and [Gonzalo] Higuain,” former Argentina coach Alfio ‘Coco’ Basile told Ole. Independiente coach Antonio ‘El Turco’ Mohamed insists Di Maria is the key.
Batista, meanwhile, remains resolute. “I can see us in the final,” he told local media this week. With just two points and one goal from its first two games, Argentina’s first of what the coach hopes will be “four finals” arrives Monday evening when his side host a confident Costa Rica in Cordoba.