Argentina’s World Cup hopes came crashing back down to earth with a bump this week, as Spain handed out a lesson in how to play at the top level of international football. While the 6-1 margin of defeat may have been exaggerated, it nevertheless demonstrated in painful fashion just how far Argentina lag behind their World Cup rivals, just two months before the party begins in Russia.
Missing Lionel Messi for the third straight match due to injury – the captain had also excused himself from November’s clash with Nigeria and Friday’s 2-0 win over Italy – Jorge Sampaoli’s men went to Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitana stadium expecting a tough evening of football. But nobody could have forecast a thrashing that ranks alongside the very worst results in Argentine history, with most of the wounds moreover self-inflicted, thanks to some extremely slapdash defending.
Defeat can often impart more lessons than victory. But Sampaoli must surely now head back to the drawing board after watching many of his World Cup hopefuls crumble under incessant Spanish pressure. Prior to the game, the coach had declared he was certain of roughly 18 of his 23- man squad for June and July, a number that may well have dropped in the hours following this latest setback.
Sampaoli gallantly bore the brunt of the blame himself for the loss. “I take full responsibility” was the repeated phrase in his post-match press conference, while the players declined to speak to reporters at the Wanda. The national team, however, also pointed out that the final result was misleading: “It was a slap in the face... Argentina played a great first half, just how we planned it. We could explain that the scoreline should not have been so lopsided, but it shows that we have to face up to this game which helps us pick our final squad and gives us plenty to work on so this does not happen at the World Cup.”
What was also clear, however, was that more than a few players showed that their time in the international arena might be coming to an end. The likes of Marcos Rojo, Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia and Ever Banega, Argentina’s most experienced players on the night – Mascherano indeed levelled Javier Zanetti’s cap record of 142 against Spain – failed to press their case for inclusion, despite being mainstays of the Albiceleste for the best part of a decade. With so little time to work on finding their replacements, it leaves Argentina in a sensitive quandary and with more blank spaces on the team sheet than confirmed names.
Simply focusing on the players though does not quite tell the whole story. If Tuesday’s friendly proved one thing, it was the inherent disadvantage a country like Argentina – massively a net exporter of talent – faces in bringing together its football diaspora to compete at the elite level.
Spain’s 10 outfielders at kick-off came from just four clubs, with nine coming from the domestic giants of Barcelona, Real and Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcántara the only outlier (although having spent much of his career at Barça, the midfielder has no problem in linking up with his team-mates). The Argentina side, on the other hand, was cobbled together from nine different clubs in seven countries, a geographical gulf spanning from Buenos Aires to Beijing. If the Albiceleste have been guilty in recent years of being overly timid in renewing their ranks, it is in part due to the fact that, with their players spread across the globe, coaches coming and going at will and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) in chronic crises those familiar old faces provide a constant inexistent elsewhere in the team.
Even Argentina’s famously demanding fans cannot expect a defence composed of two novice full-backs in Fabricio Bustos and Nicolás Tagliafico, recently returned Marcos Rojo and the solid Nicolás Otamendi to measure up to that of Tuesday’s rivals. Spain’s back four boasted a total of 364 caps, 11 Champions League crowns and two players each from Barça and Madrid that are veterans of countless battles alongside and against one another; with a base that solid, even the most inexperienced young talents can feel instantly at home in the famous red shirt.
That is a luxury the likes of Bustos, Tagliafico, Maxi Meza, Lautaro Martínez and Cristian Pavón will not be afforded in their international careers. The quintet represent the future, but the present situation for Sampaoli’s Argentina is extremely delicate indeed, with a changing of the guard that should have started four years previously after the 2014 World Cup final only now taking place. Tuesday’s defeat was not a “catastrophe,” as Jorge Valdano dubbed it, but it was a painful reminder that with teams like Spain and Germany currently far ahead of Argentina in both organisation and collective quality, the Russia finals will be an uphill battle from day one for this team that is still, undoubtedly, an unfinished product.