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SPORTS | 03-09-2021 03:16

Fine return to action for Scaloni's heroes

Relaxed and confident Argentina see off Venezuela in the first of three World Cup qualifying matches in seven days.

If there were any lingering doubts that the Copa América win would prove enough to establish this Argentina team as national heroes, confirmation arrived this week. Four of the team's stars took on none other than the bigwigs of England's Premier League and triumphed, thereby securing their presence in this week's World Cup qualifying marathon and enhancing their own growing legends in the process.

While the likes of Brazil and Uruguay were left counting the cost of the division's reprehensible decision to ignore FIFA law and restrict its players' movement, Lionel Scaloni was left with a grin on his face as Emiliano Martínez, Emiliano Buendía, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso performed their own version of The Great Escape to join their team-mates. They may have chosen a charter jet rather than a vintage motorcycle to slip out of sight, but it was nevertheless a huge boost for a team already on the crest of a wave following its triumph in the Maracaná back in July.

Arriving for international duty is only part of the equation of course. Thursday's opening match saw Argentina take on Venezuela in a deceptively tricky away engagement, much more than simply a warm-up for the main event of this FIFA window, the upcoming clash on Sunday against depleted yet revenge-hungry Brazil. Ultimately, though, it proved a straightforward test, the only moment of anxiety revolving around Lionel Messi and a brush with serious injury.

The new Paris Saint-Germain forward received a brusque welcome back to the rough and tumble of South American football by way of a horrendous tackle from Luis Martínez, who had been on the pitch for just seven minutes and lasted no longer. Messi thankfully escaped undue damage, and with numerical advantage Argentina made their superiority tell. Lautaro Martínez opened the scoring soon after his almost namesake had left the field, while after the half-time break substitutes Joaquín and Ángel Correa struck in quick succession to put the result beyond doubt.

Yeferson Soteldo narrowed the scoreline in injury time with a sublime penalty but it proved scant consolation for Venezuela, who struggled to keep track of the dynamic Albiceleste with 11 men on the field and with one down found the task too much to handle.

All in all it was a fine return to action for Scaloni's heroes, relaxed and confident in their own game after the immense vote of confidence that a win over Brazil in the Maracaná is liable to afford. Nothing can be taken for granted, of course, and even less so in the roller-coaster that is CONMEBOL's qualifying competition, but at this early stage Argentina look a solid bet to make Qatar 2022 in comfort and with time to spare. 

One thing that is indisputable right now is that, after so many growing pains at the start of the coach's tenure, which began almost by accident, results like Thursday's show that the Copa triumph was far from a flash in the pan. Messi and Co have the talent, the cohesion and the spirit to take on all-comers, and those three virtues are more or less guaranteed to make for a formidable national team which will not buckle against any potential rival.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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