The novice coach is dangerously out of his depth at this level and was lucky to have his captain bail him out in what was almost a disastrous defeat
Another day, another pitiful performance. Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina were saved by Lionel Messi and lucky to take a draw on Wednesday against Paraguay, demonstrating once and for all that the rookie coach is criminally out of his depth at what supposedly is one of the world’s elite international teams.
Not since Diego Maradona has the Albiceleste had on the bench a man so tactically inept and seemingly out of control when it comes to managing a squad of players; and thanks to that incompetence they now find themselves on the verge of an historic first-round Copa America elimination in Brazil.
Scaloni was of course a stop-gap solution at the helm. Forced into a corner after the 2018 World Cup by the breakdown in order under Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentine FA had no choice but to send the Copa America winner with Chile packing and look for a replacement.
The problem was, nobody seemed willing to grasp the poisoned chalice that was the Argentina job. Almost by default the position fell to Scaloni, who just months previously had wormed his way into a minor back-room role with Sampaoli after his father pleaded with the then-Sevilla coach to give him a chance.
Saturday’s 2-0 reverse at the hands of Colombia was Scaloni’s first-ever competitive outing as a coach, and it showed. Argentina looked second-best for almost the entire match, aside from a bright spell in the first 20 minutes of the second half, and deservedly tasted defeat in the Copa for the first time since the 2007 final.
The coach’s response was confusing and inconsistent, publicly lauding the virtues of his team after the match before proceeding to ring wholesale changes, no less than four for Paraguay; including the omissions of Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, two of his most experienced players.
Maradona too was fond of chopping and changing, using 108 players during his 18 months in charge that ended at South Africa 2010. Scaloni is not far behind, having picked more than 50 in less than a year.
The starting line-up chosen to take on the Guarani was his 12th different XI in as many games, and it showed. Players accustomed to excelling at club level – Lionel Messi, Gio Lo Celso, Rodrigo de Paul, Nicolas Tagliafico – took to the pitch as almost total strangers, struggling even to string two decent passes together and mustering a single shot in the entire first 45 minutes, a Messi free-kick that landed comfortably in the hands of Robert Fernandez.
Messi, of course, is one of the survivors from the Maradona era. Nicolas Otamendi is another, left almost traumatised when he was effectively thrown to the lions against Germany in 2010 at right-back in that infamous 4-0 thrashing.
Nine years later and the Manchester City man is at least in his natural central position, but he appears a pale imitation of his former best. Otamendi’s platinum hairstyle contrasted with a physical conditioning as rusty as a child’s bicycle left abandoned in a fetid swamp, as he was the standard-bearer of yet another Argentina defensive horror show.
Milton Casco was the right-back this time round and he similarly suffered watching Miguel Almiron fly past him before squaring into the box, where Richard Sanchez stole in and converted past Franco Armani for the game’s first goal 36 minutes in. There were plenty of Argentina players in the box, but not one reacted to the cross, a hallmark of this team which still appears to be a collection of strangers struggling for motivation under a weekend amateur coach.
Argentina were now staring elimination square in the face, and would now be in even worse state were it not for their captain and a timely intervention from VAR. The off-pitch referees spotted a hand as Lautaro Martinez struck the bar and Messi converted perfectly from the spot to level the game in the second half.
Even then, there was still time for Scaloni to excel himself once more in misreading the game. The introduction of Sergio Aguero alongside Martinez had given Argentina far more direction in attack, making his decision to withdraw Lautaro for Di Maria all the more inexplicable.
Were it not for Armani, who saved from the spot after a horror tackle from the absent-minded Otamendi, things could have been a lot worse for the team that has made the final in the last two Copas.
As it is, they live to fight another day, with victory over Qatar on Saturday probably enough to send them through to the quarters. But the general shambles that afflicts the Albiceleste cannot be ignored; and ultimate responsibility lies with the worst coach the team has had since Hurricane Diego smashed its way through the doors.