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SPORTS | 11-06-2021 00:36

Argentina lay foundations ahead of Copa América’s kick-off

Draws in World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Colombia remind the Albiceleste that there’s little margin for error. But there’s still grounds for optimism ahead of the Covid Copa in Brazil.

When it comes to international football, especially in the pressure-cooker that is South America there is very little margin for error. Argentina defender Juan Foyth found that out the hard way this week as one mistake cut his winter with the Albiceleste short in the most abrupt manner possible with exclusion from yesterday's Copa América squad announcement.

The Villarreal player was caught dribbling out from the back on Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Colombia deep into stoppage time with Lionel Scaloni's men leading 2-1. If that lapse in judgement – anathema to anyone whose alma mater is the school of hard knocks that is Estudiantes – was not bad enough, Foyth then dawdled in his penalty area moments later and allowed striker Miguel Borja to head into the net, the ball just squeezing under goalkeeper Agustín Marchesín's body and rolling over the line.

That late blow robbed Argentina of three points in Barranquilla, which would have been richly deserved after a strong display from the visitors, particularly in the first half where Colombia were played off the field while outside battles raged between protesters and police. In fairness to Foyth, he was not the only defender to fluff his lines. Veteran Nicolás Otamendi gave the Cafeteros a chance to claw their way back with a horribly clumsy challenge that resulted in a penalty, but the Porto centre-back made the cut for the Copa América alongside the impressive Cristian Romero, a rock until (thankfully minor) injury ruled him out while the youngster heads home.

“[Argentina] always dominate play, sometimes in a more vertical manner,” Scaloni told reporters after the game, the second straight draw for Argentina this winter after being held 1-1 by Chile last Thursday. “We have dominated play in the six [qualifying] games we have had. In all six we've been superior to the opponent, we deserved to win them all. But just deserving it does not count in football.”

Argentina nevertheless remain in strong shape. The team remains unbeaten in its six qualifiers, and occupies second place behind rampant Brazil, who have picked up all 18 available points so far without breaking sweat. For that reason, added to the obvious boost of playing on home soil, the Copa América holders go into the 2021 edition – which they kick off tomorrow against Venezuela – as runaway favourites to defend their title, and with some ease. Is there any hope for Argentina, then?

Despite failing to win, these most recent games have left grounds for optimism. The emergence of Romero at the back and Emi Martínez in goal – the Aston Villa keeper was another injury worry after being stretchered off against Colombia, but has since received a clean bill of health – is a huge advantage for the Albiceleste, having struggled for years to balance their star-studded attack with a competent rearguard.

Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso ticked all the right boxes further up the field, while in Lautaro Martínez the hugely influential Lionel Messi has found his partner at international level, even if the identity of the third member of that attack is still unclear. Argentina's biggest weakness at this stage probably remains the lack of time its players have enjoyed on the field together to learn each other's play, but the structure of this upcoming tournament plays in their favour. Monday's Group A opener against Chile is the first of four games prior to the knockouts, plenty of time for Scaloni's team to gel and iron out the kinks seen in the World Cup qualifiers. The foundation is in place to enjoy a respectable, even successful Copa, then; but whether it is enough to overcome the mighty hosts is far less certain.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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