This week has seen a wave of activity in international football, most of which occurred far away from the confines of the pitch. Even as Argentina's Europe-based stars were funnelling back across the Atlantic Ocean for a packed winter of World Cup qualifying and Copa América action, the nation learned that it had been stripped (or should that be spared?) of its duties to host the latter.
The coronavirus pandemic refuses to relent across South America, and amid government doubts that it would be appropriate to hold a Copa in the middle of such an acute health crisis CONMEBOL acted to take it to Brazil, a country which has suffered just as much as if not more from the virus but which comes with the distinct advantage of having a president willing to do anything to distract attention from the 'gripezinha.'
Even so, Jair Bolsonaro did not exactly have things his own way, as several of the nation's top footballing states warned his administration against bringing the tournament anywhere near their stadium's and prompted two days of scrambling before ultimately finding a handful of regions that would play along.
Argentina's giant neighbour to the north did not prove a happy hunting ground two years ago at the last Copa, and if the national side hopes to make a splash this time round, starting off on the right foot will be vital when the action kicks off on June 14 against Chile. Thursday's qualifier against the very same opponent, then, was an ideal warm-up; and suggested that plenty of work still needs to be done.
The Albiceleste kicked off in Santiago del Estero's plush new, expensive and now Copa-less Estadio Único with precious little time to prepare. Lionel Scaloni's men, who took part in a moving tribute to Diego Maradona before the match, the first since his passing, last took the field all the way back in November, while the troops have been filing back to Buenos Aires only in the last week or fortnight, and after one of the most intense seasons in club history to boot. Even so, the hosts set the pace early on and went ahead through a Lionel Messi penalty just before the half-hour after Lautaro Martínez was brought down having powered his way through on goal.
From there it looked as though Argentina would be enjoying a gentle reintroduction to the rigours of international football. Chile, however, had other ideas. Nine minutes before the break and with what was their first and only shot on target of the entire match, the Roja took advantage of some dozy set-piece defending from the Albiceleste's new-look and otherwise impressive backline and Alexís Sánchez did not even have to look at the empty net as he finished one of the easiest chances of his distinguished career.
For the rest of the game a combination of Claudio Bravo and Argentina's own limitations conspired to keep the result deadlocked at 1-1. Messi's old team-mate at Barcelona pulled off two incredible stops to deny him a second goal of the evening, while too much of the home team's approach play was stilted, predictable and easy to fend off, although there was a distinct improvement after the ever-frustrating Ángel Di María was replaced by debutant Julián Álvarez. Messi, though, was happy to see the upside despite the draw.
“We hadn't played together in a long time. It is not easy, we need some work but we did well,” he explained after the game. “We were unlucky in the set-piece goal because it would have been tough for them to score otherwise... we come away happy with the result despite not winning.”
Indeed, Thursday's tie keeps Argentina's unbeaten qualifier record intact and keeps them on track for a place at Qatar 2022 after five rounds. They now move on to a clash with fellow ex-Copa host Colombia, the final game before heading to Brazil, and a strong result there would leave them in decent stead for the tournament itself, even if plenty of improvement is still needed.