Jorge Sampaoli’s competitive bow as Argentina coach had been awaited with more expectation than with perhaps any other trainer. But despite his impeccable track record, the Casilda native was given a rude welcome to life with the Albiceleste this week, as he was reminded that transforming this national team would be no easy task.
Even boasting the attacking talents of Lionel Messi, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Angel di Maria, to name just four, argentina managed to score just a single goal – an own goal at that too – in two desperately disappointing draws against Uruguay and Venezuela. The results could have even left the nation in worse stead had it not been for Chile’s defeats at the hands of Paraguay and Peru, but it leaves argentina treading water perilously in fifth place in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying group, which as it stands would only be good enough for a playoff double-header against New Zealand as a final chance to make the Russia tournament.
There is no doubt that Sampaoli, a Copa América winner with Chile and fresh off a fine season in Spain at the helm of Sevilla, is one of the most innovative, tactically ingenious coaches in modern football. But the evidence on display this week suggests that his biggest challenge will be transmitting those ideas down to the players on the pitch. after a bright start against Venezuela where only a lack of precision and the immense teenager Wuilker Fariñez in goal stopped Argentina from scoring at least three times, the team fell to pieces in an anarchic second half that left the coach wishing he had hair to tear out of his scalp.
“We let a big opportunity slip, we were hoping to win it,” Sampaoli told reporters after the match, the only member of the Albiceleste delegation to speak as Messi and his team-mates keep up their media boycott. “That is football and you know it can happen. with the quality of players we have and with 11 clear chances to score, it might occur that when your opponent has one chance and scores you get confused. “we have to work harder on what we did right and if we repeat what we did in the first half, we will be closer to qualification,” he added.
Right now though, qualification still looks a long way off on the horizon. Stuck on 24 points after 16 games, a pitiful return for a team of such quality, and ahead only of lowly Bolivia on goals scored – a total of 16, just one per game – argentina now have a month to regroup before the final matches of this ConMeBol competition loom. Peru, buoyed by two wins this month which have catapulted them into contention for what would be their first world Cup in 36 years, visit Buenos aires in october in a game which is simply a mustwin for the hosts. And that will be no easy prospect.
Win, lose or draw in that clash, which if AFA heads Claudio Tapia and Daniel Angelici get their way will be played in the cauldron of Boca Juniors’ Bombonera home, the Albiceleste may still need to go to the altitude of Quito and get a result against Ecuador. While a promising start to qualifiers for the nation has degenerated into a freefall, they will still be dangerous opponents on home turf, especially if they make it to that last game with their own world Cup hopes still intact. Whatever happens in those games, one thing is certain: a repeat of the performances seen against Uruguay and Venezuela will condemn argentina to watching Russia 2018 on television in less than a year’s time.