The countdown to the Copa América has begun in earnest for Argentina, and everyone involved with the national seems to have been taken by surprise. With no team in place, and with a coach who seems lost in his post, it is increasingly difficult to garner even the slightest sensation of optimism ahead of the competition – particularly on the evidence of the Albiceleste’s outings over the past week.
Nine months and eight games have come and gone since Argentina were sent packing from the 2018 World Cup. Lionel Scaloni has been in charge for each of those encounters, having taken over from Jorge Sampaoli when the divisive former Sevilla and Chile boss was sacked in the aftermath of defeat by France. Few people can say that they have enjoyed a more meteoric rise to the top over the past year than the man currently occupying the hot-seat.
Scaloni worked under Sampaoli as an unspecified assistant in the Argentina set-up, with scarce coaching experience since calling time on a respectable if not scintillating professional playing career. In quick succession he was then handed the reins of the national under-20 team and then interim command of the seniors, where his youthful mind and lack of baggage were seen as positives by the bosses at the Argentine Football Association (AFA), following failure in Russia at the World Cup. Committed to trying out new players and reforming the national team – while constantly courting the return of talisman and captain Lionel Messi – the new coach briefly looked to be ready to be the man to take Argentina into the Copa América and beyond.
Unfortunately, what nobody in the A FA or indeed Scaloni’s backroom team had noticed was that while the coach had his eyes set on beyond, the Copa was already creeping up on them. Now, with less than three months to go before the tournament kicks off in Brazil, they are presented with the cold truth that Messi might not be able to save the team once again. Panic stations are being manned around Viamonte.
Last Friday’s disastrous 3-1 defeat to Venezuela – with Messi in tow for the first time under Scaloni – was followed by the most rapid of retreats from the captain, with Argentina alleging the reason was a muscle complaint that will not cause him to miss a minute of club football.
Without the Barcelona star – and in gale-force winds – the Albiceleste then laboured a few days later to a 1-0 win over Morocco in one of the ugliest, most soporific matches it has played in recent memory, salvaged by a late goal from Ángel Correa. Not even then could Argentina enjoy the spoils of victory, as focus was immediately shifted to the coach’s curious post-match declarations, which betrayed his inexperience at this level.
When asked if the formation employed in Tangiers was his favoured Copa system, Scaloni responded with an extraordinary admission of his own uncertainty. “Yes, who knows? I don’t know! You guys care about the formation, you focus on that, and we don’t think it’s that important,” he fired. He went on to confess that, having previously stated his Copa America squad was 80 percent complete, that ratio had now dropped to a mere 70 percent. For someone whose position – and future – seems to hang on a strong performance in Brazil, he certainly is not making the right noises about the competition.
In Scaloni’s eight games to date – five wins, including two over Mexico and victories against Iraq, Guatemala and now Morocco, a goalless draw with future Copa opponents Colombia and defeats to fellow potential rivals Brazil and Venezuela – the coach has fielded no less than 47 players. Two more at least, Ángel Di María and Sergio Agüero, still have a chance of breaking into the team despite having not featured under Scaloni, with the former dropping out of the squad this time around due to injury. Results have varied, but what exactly have the matches taught us about Argentina’s best team and whether it has a chance of taking glory in Brazil? Unless Scaloni sees something that has clearly escaped the attention of everyone else in Argentina, absolutely nothing. There is no established team ready to take on South America, no favoured formation in which they can shine – and little to no chance of a Copa America title when June eventually rolls around.