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World Cup 2014
 
OUR MAN IN BRAZIL

Our Man in Brazil: Argentina could do with Tevez sparkle

Right now they appear a two-man team squeezing through on luck

Published on Jul 3, 2014 2:47 PM
 
Midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri (left) being consoled by team-mate Philippe Senderos after Switzerland lost to Argentina. The Swiss put up a brave fight, denying their fancied rivals the chance to dominate them. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CARLOS Tevez is probably smiling as I write this.

After all, Argentina are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, despite not being at their best at Brazil 2014. But it is probably also to do with the fact that he knows that some in Argentina's camp are ruing the decision not to include him in La Albiceleste's World Cup squad.

On Tuesday, as the penalty shootout against Switzerland loomed at the Arena de Sao Paulo, it was Lionel Messi who again proved the difference.

His moment of brilliance in the 118th minute, riding a tackle before threading a pass to Angel di Maria to slot home the game's only goal, was just enough to secure passage into the last eight.

It was the first time that Argentina had won a match at this World Cup without Messi scoring. He had a lacklustre game but his country still triumphed. That is the good news. They are no longer a one-man team. Hurrah.

In Sao Paulo, they discovered they can be a two-man team, such has been Argentina's slow evolution in four matches in Brazil.

Messi conceded that luck played a factor in Tuesday's win. His coach Alejandro Sabella insisted that the better team won.

"We deserved the win but the ideal thing would have been to have got the job done in normal time," he said. "It goes without saying that winning is the most important thing and the only thing that really matters."

To a certain extent, he is right. The scoreline was all that mattered to the 63,225 largely Argentinian crowd in Sao Paulo. They cheered, danced and taunted the Brazilians with a song about Messi lifting the Cup and the hurt of the 1990 World Cup when Argentina beat Brazil in the second round. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Argentinians have crossed the border and are making their presence felt in Brazil.

But, while being far from their best and settling for 1-0 wins over Iran and Switzerland may be acceptable to the travelling fans and millions more at home, things are set to change.

From now on, there can be no more sub-par performances, not at the quarter-finals, not against better sides. Not if Argentina want to win the World Cup.

Sabella's men came into the tournament boasting the most feared attack in Brazil. He had Messi, supported by Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio on the bench. Even without Messi and di Maria, who together accounted for 52 club goals this season,  the remaining quartet scored 83 goals among them.

But, in Brazil, their contribution to Argentina's seven-goal haul reads thus: four by Messi, one own goal, one by defender Marcos Rojo, one by di Maria, zero by the rest.

After the Swiss game, Argentina moved up to second in the shot department at this World Cup, with 77 attempts. They have launched the most number of attacks, 248, over 50 more than France, Germany or Brazil. Impressive numbers - until you consider the number of goals scored.

Factor in the goals, and suddenly Argentina are the second-most wasteful team among the last eight, second only to Belgium, ironically their next opponents.

One could argue that the numbers should take into consideration that Argentina played Iran and Switzerland, teams who were happy to sit back and invite the onslaught.

Yet, no matter how you look at it, it does not hide from the fact that Argentina, with the talent they boast, are not a team maximising their strengths.

Against Switzerland, it looked like Messi and di Maria against the Swiss at times. The pair accounted for 14 of the 29 shots Argentina took. There was little link-up play between the front three of Messi, Higuain and Lavezzi, likewise Palacio when he came on.

A rare break in extra-time summed up the confidence running through the team. A counter-attack put di Maria, Palacio, Higuain and Messi against three Swiss defenders. The chance was there for di Maria to play an early pass to either Palacio or Higuain. But he elected to wait for Messi, who was a couple of strides behind, and the chance was lost.

The problem with their forward line is that, apart from Messi and di Maria and the injured Aguero, there is no striker who can do the unpredictable. Higuain and Palacio are far too static and, while Lavezzi may be slightly better, he too lacks an eye for goal.

It is why someone like Tevez, whose movement and predatory instincts en route to 21 goals for Juventus and the Italian league title, could be the missing link. But his strained relationship with Sabella explains why he is absent.

On Tuesday, Messi was voted the man of the match for the fourth time in Argentina's four games, further fuelling talk that they are a one-man team.

He acknowledged that he did not have the best of matches.

"I don't know whether I deserved this one or not but what is important is that we move on to the next stage which is what we wanted," he said.

"That's football and today luck was on our side. We have to make the most of it and keep on going." 

As much as he would like the World Cup journey to continue, the road to Rio for that July 13 date is narrowing. It is not getting easier, with tired bodies and minds after three weeks of action.

It is a journey neither he nor di Maria can do on their own. And, unless the rest of the team step up, Tevez may soon have company during this summer break.

marclim@sph.com.sg

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