The World Cup qualifiers are upon us once more in South America, and as has become custom in these parts, the backdrop to Argentina's opening clash of the round was greeted by a minor diplomatic incident.
Fighting for their lives in the competition, Chile chose to pull out all the stops for the visit of their neighbours across the Andes, moving Thursday's game to the desert altitude of Calama in a bid both to gain an extra advantage over the Albiceleste. For good measure the Argentina delegation – minus the two Lionels, captain Messi and coach Scaloni, with the former left in Paris following his recent battle with Covid-19 and the latter barred from travelling for identical reasons – endured a rocky start to their stay in Chile, with a lengthy wait in the airport while tests were carried out and sniffer dogs inspected their luggage, “to find the Sugus sweets” in the now-immortal words of goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez.
Showing the same ebullient sense of humour that characterises bureaucrats everywhere, however, Chile's Interior minister Rodrigo Delgado failed to see the funny side of Martínez's good-natured ribbing of the tortuous process. “If they are going to talk about a mess,” Delgado fired, in reference to another of the shot-stopper's recorded comments, “if they are going to criticise health personnel, I want to explain to them... Chile has managed the numbers it has, leading the world in vaccination, testing, due to the work of those employees. They came in with a lot out of order. It surprised me they came with that level of aggression. I'd ask them to be more humble, to acknowledge the real mess was in their paperwork.”
Delgado signed off with a kind word for the canine allegedly wronged by Argentina's No. 1 –- “that little dog is doing fine work. We will probably congratulate the dog”– but declined to comment on the 'mysterious' fault that left the Albiceleste's team hotel in parched, sweltering Calama without water for several hours in the build-up to the game.
Off-field travails aside, events at the evocatively named Estadio Zorros del Desierto went much according to plan for the visitors, who were in no mood to give up points even with qualification to the World Cup already assured. Ángel Di María was handed the captain's armband in Messi's absence and continued his international renaissance with the opening goal after nine minutes, a luscious curling effort that found its way past the outstretched fingertips of Chile's Claudio Bravo and into the net.
In dire need of points to bolster their faltering Qatar campaign, the hosts were from that moment on obliged to chase the game, which they did with more enthusiasm than flowing football for most of the 90 minutes, rarely letting Argentina remain comfortable on the ball. There was a brief moment of hope for the Roja when England-born Ben Brereton 'Díaz' headed over Martínez to level, but Lautaro Martínez stepped up to fire home a rebound and send emergency coach Walter Samuel's charges into the break 2-1 – a lead they rarely looked like losing in a non-event of a second half.
The so-called Scaloneta, then, shows no sign of slowing down, even when the trainer himself is on the other side of the continent watching from afar. Thursday's clash was the 28th consecutive match Argentina have negotiated without defeat; more than any other nation in the world right now and just three behind the national record set by Alfio Basile's men in the early 1990s. Not bad at all considering that the inspirational Messi and several other key first-teamers were missing, and another victory – thanks to Chile, with even a dash of adversity thrown in - that will build confidence and team unity as Qatar draws ever closer on the horizon.