Mood shifts after Messi, Argentina shine
It wasn't in the brand new Estadio Unico, the shining centerpiece of the Copa America. As the name perhaps ought to have suggested beforehand, neither was it in the Elephant Cemetery. Appropriately, it was in the Estadio Mario Kempes where Argentina finally found their feet and kick-started their Copa America campaign with a 3-0 win over Costa Rica. In truth the score line fell some way short of reflecting the Argentina’s dominance in the final Group A match. But there was a shift in mood after this result, supporters and the media agreeing in unison that they had finally seen a performance worthy of the national team shirt.
Against Bolivia in La Plata, an organized Bolivia side managed to contain Sergio Batista's side and earn a valuable point. It would be Bolivia’s only point in the competition.
In Santa Fe, at the stadium where the home side, Colón, defeated some of the country's biggest clubs back in the day, earning the ground the nickname of the resting ground for elephants, the side was booed off the pitch after a goalless draw with Colombia. The visitors had been the better side. Argentina had been the lumbering tusked creatures.
But at the ground recently renamed after the 1978 World Cup final hero, Mario Kempes, Argentina found a system - and the players within that system - to deliver a performance that matched the sum of its parts.
Batista ditched his midfield and front three for a midfield duo of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago. The introduction of Gonzalo Higuaín provided the reference point up front, and Ángel Di María and Sergio Agüero provided the support for Leo Messi that the Barcelona number 10 had been lacking in previous games.
Messi thrived off the new formation. There were no hands on hips, no scowls, and no hanging head. There were slaloms, neat passes, and deft touches. It was the Messi everyone had expected. Reading his teammates movement, he drifted into space and combined, attacked and passed better than ever with the Argentina shirt. He still has yet to score in the Copa America, but his two delicate assists plus the ovation at the end of the game confirmed that the team had found its formula to bring out the best from the world number one.
The opposition ably abetted Argentina’s improvement. With one player over the age of 22, with amateurs in the side, with few serious aspirations to deliver an upset, it was a simple case of damage limitation. Few statistics speak more eloquently of the Ticos’ performance than the fact the whole side made fewer passes than Fernando Gago alone.
Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell (L) vies for the ball with Argentine midfielder Fernando Gago. (AFP PHOTO / RODRIGO BUENDIA)
The case of Gago with the national team is a curious one. Under Alfio Basile, his partnership with Mascherano had been seen as the future of the national team. Under Maradona, a 'long face' - as Maradona put it – during a World Cup qualifier lead to him losing his place in the side and the plans. He missed out on the World Cup. And just months ago, he and his girlfriend penciled in the date to marry. It was due to be in July, during the Copa America. Fernando clearly didn’t expect to be busy.
Injury, plus the lack of trust in the player at Real Madrid, limited his club appearances over the past couple of years in Spain. With few games over the past 12, or even 24 months, could he really merit a place in the Argentina squad? Batista thought so. And against Costa Rica, Gago was the metronome in midfield.
Despite the headlines early on in his career, Gago is not the new Fernado Redondo. The comparisons stop at the first name and the pre-cropped long hair. But he is the player that simplifies, that distributes well and doesn't constantly look to dribble and beat his man. He brings balance to the side, particularly when not hampered by a third holding midfielder next to him.
It is worth repeating that every single individual performance, and the collective performance, must be held up against the quality that Argentina faced against Costa Rica. But the 3-0 win suggests Batista has found his formation. Sergio Agüero provided the goals, and perhaps with more minutes before this game, and less haste, Gonzalo Higuaín would have added to the final result. The win and the fluid football have changed the mood surrounding the hosts. And the squad that Batista has chosen contains the players to alter the line-up without altering the system. Whether this system will deliver success in the tournament, however, still requires a real test.