The 'Twelfth Player' at the Bombonera is reckoned to be Boca Juniors' secret weapon – the Xeneize's vociferous home support that has helped them through more than a few tight spots over the years. Since the Covid pandemic hit, though, the stands have fallen silent in La Boca, and on Thursday night it was the Argentine national team that experienced the eerie surroundings of the empty stadium as they finally kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign, nine months before schedule.
Lionel Messi and Co responded with a suitably muted performance against Ecuador, doing just enough to ensure that Gustavo Alfaro found little comfort in his return to the home of his former employers on his debut at the Tricolor helm.
Alfaro's stubbornly dour tactics did little to endear him to the Boca faithful during his year in charge at the Bombonera, and even fewer fans will be regretting the decision to cut him loose after seeing Ecuador in action. Usually a direct, dangerous albeit inconsistent threat, Thursday's visitors failed to muster a single shot on target in the entire game, leaving the onus on the Albiceleste to force the pace. The will was there from Lionel Scaloni's men, but the execution left a lot to be desired despite picking up a 1-0 win and a positive start to the marathon CONMEBOL journey to Qatar 2022.
It appeared as though the hosts were in for a night to remember. With just 12 minutes on the clock a neat link-up between Lautaro Martínez and Lucas Ocampos sent the latter tearing away on the right-hand side of the box, forcing a desperate challenge from Pervis Estupiñan that was closer to amputating the Argentina forward's legs than cleanly winning the ball. Lionel Messi stepped up to convert the resulting penalty and the Selección were on the way to what looked set to be a convincing win.
That it did not turn out that way had as much to do with Alfaro's obstinate determination to protect his side's 1-0 deficit as Scaloni's inability to devise a strategy that would carve holes in the yellow wall opposite. The result was painful viewing for all concerned, particularly after the half-time break when both teams put the game of football behind them and instead engaged in a tedious, tetchy war of attrition that seemed to bore even the recorded crowd that provided a veneer of atmosphere for television's sake.
Perhaps most worryingly for the home side, even with all of Ecuador's attacking limitations the backline still looked brittle and ready to collapse at the slightest provocation, a concern that must be addressed before Argentina meet a team willing to advance beyond the halfway line from time to time.
A few scuffed efforts in and around the box, a handful of Messi incursions, some positive signs from the tireless Ocampos and a late decent effort from Rodrigo De Paul that flew just past the post was otherwise about as good as it got for the Albiceleste, who nevertheless will take ample comfort in the three points that accompanied their lukewarm display.
Ecuador, lest we forget, shocked Gerardo Martino's men at the start of the 2018 qualifiers, setting the tone for a painful slog to Russia, and with the upheaval caused by coronavirus – not least the fact that the national team had not played together since last November – if there was ever a case to be made for winning no matter what the cost, this would be the time to make it.
Still, improvements will need to be made and fast, ideally before Tuesday's trip to Bolivia where the lung-busting altitude of La Paz will leave no room for error. For now, we can give Scaloni's men the benefit of the doubt, but coach and players alike will have to do much more if they are to give Argentina's expectant fans something to shout about.