When the draw was made for the group phase of the 2011 Copa America, most people were agreed: fortune had smiled on Sergio Batista’s side, who, it was believed, would have little problem advancing from a section comprising Bolivia, Colombia and Costa Rica.
Yet, having now played both Bolivia and Colombia, the reality is somewhat different, with the tournament hosts collecting only two points from those matches and needing to take something from their final game with Los Ticos to go through. And perhaps even more worryingly for their coach, his charges have looked anything but convincing against supposedly inferior opposition.
“The simple fact is that things are not working out the way we expected them to,” admitted Batista in the wake of the 0-0 draw with Los Cafeteros in Santa Fe. “The team looked slow and error-prone, and because of that we lost our shape and our patience. We didn’t do things the way we would have liked.”
Batista’s concerns are well-founded. In the course of their two games Argentina have scored only one goal – Sergio Aguero’s fine volley against Bolivia – and have spent more time chasing after the ball than controlling possession of it. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Sergio Romero has had to be at his very best to prevent his side suffering an even worse fate. So impressive was Romero against the Colombians, in fact, that the users of the official tournament website voted him their player of the match.
So is Batista planning to ring the changes for the decisive game against the Central Americans? “We’ll look at that in the next few days,” he replied. “We might play with two in the centre of midfield and go with an extra forward. We’re lacking an out-and-out striker to play between the centre-halves, though we can also team Javier Pastore up with [Lionel] Messi. We’ll see. If we win we’ll have five points and we’ll be through. That’s what we have to focus on when we go out there. It’s going to be a cup final for us.”
Time to produce
Eighteen years have gone by since Argentina last won the Copa America, and the odds of them ending that run here are now stacked against them. Only once in the history of the world’s oldest national team competition has any side recovered from drawing their first two matches to go on and win the trophy. The team in question were Brazil, who drew with Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay at the start of the 1922 competition, which they hosted, before eventually running out winners.
Not surprisingly, Batista’s players came in for criticism from the fans when they trooped off the pitch in Santa Fe. Speaking afterwards, Carlos Tevez said he understood their anger: “The fans are right to get mad. What can we say to them? We just need to stop talking and starting producing more on the pitch. I’m a striker and I’ve hardly had a shot on goal.”
A starter in both games so far and one of the team’s leading figures, El Apache also pointed to the fact that Argentina’s galaxy of stars had yet to hit their stride: “We’ve got good players all over the pitch, but if the team doesn’t show up then you’re nowhere. Some people expect us to score four goals in five minutes and that’s impossible. We’ll get it right, though, and we’ll do it soon.”
For his part, veteran Esteban Cambiasso sought to soothe Albiceleste nerves ahead of the make-or-break meeting with Los Ticos: “We can’t think about the pressure from the fans, who’ve supported us a lot up to now. What really counts is that things are still in our hands. We have to win, and that’s what matters.”