For the ninth time in his career, and the fifth as Argentina captain, Lionel Messi travels in search of a longcoveted senior international title. The Barcelona wizard heads the Albiceleste delegation to Brazil for the Copa América, which begins for his nation today against Colombia. It is a daunting first test, and an apt challenge to begin a tournament that already looks to be out of his and Argentina’s reach.
Suffice to say, Argentina’s preparations for this latest Copa have been far from ideal. Since the 2018 World Cup ended in failure Jorge Sampaoli’s replacement on the bench, Lionel Scaloni, has called up more than 50 different players for a host of friendlies of differing importance and difficult before finally opting for the 23 who finally travelled to Brazil.
There was even time for one last act of improvisation when River Plate youngster Exequiel Palacios – one of the talents chosen by Scaloni who should have a great future in international colours in Copas and World Cups to come – was forced to pull out after suffering injury playing for his club. Having picked a long list of more than 40 prior to narrowing his choices down, Scaloni opted for a player not included at all among that horde, Tigres’ Guido Pizarro. While one does not like to jump to conclusions based on one incoherent decision, it is a curiosity that hardly bodes well for the Albiceleste on the eve of this tournament.
As for how the team itself will look when it takes the field in Salvador’s Fonte Nova Arena, there is also plenty of doubt. The starting line-up is all but confirmed, featuring River’s Franco Armani – a rare survivor from the Russia 2018 debacle – in goal, behind a defence of new Porto signing and Superliga champion Renzo Saravia of Racing Club, Manchester City’s Nicolás Otamendi, Germán Pezzella of Fiorentina and Champions League semi-finalist, Ajax left-back Nicolás Tagliafico. Four-fifths of that backline featured in last Saturday’s friendly thrashing of Nicaragua, a rival that hardly served to replicate the fierce competition and ability Argentina are likely to find at the Copa but at least provided a welcome shot of confidence ahead of the main event.
The midfield will include at least one player who has shown he may be a worthy foil to Messi. Fresh off a fine season with Betis in La Liga, Giovani Lo Celso put in a stunning performance against Nicaragua; and crucially was able to link up with his captain in a way that few have managed on a consistent basis in international colours, almost since Juan Román Riquelme stepped down from the team. Again, the yawning gulf in quality must be taken into account, but there is no doubt that Lo Celso has earned his place to take on Colombia, most likely accompanied by Leandro Paredes and Guido Rodríguez, both solid rather than spectacular performers in the friendly.
It is in attack where perhaps the only last-minute selection doubt has been formed. Sergio Agüero’s international record and standing made him the overwhelming choice to lead from centre-forward: that is, until Lautaro Martínez burst onto the scene by scoring twice against Nicaragua to give Scaloni certain food for thought. Martínez is Argentina’s top scorer under their current coach with four strikes in the past year and while he is still likely to start off the bench while Kun gets the nod alongside Messi and Ángel Di María, another strong intervention today would make calls for his inclusion hard to ignore.
Messi and his merry band of men continue to face Paraguay and Qatar in Group B, before the real challenge begins in the knockout phase. There, the team’s lack of experience and cohesion is likely to be put to the test. The likes of Brazil and Uruguay both go into the tournament with settled starting lineups that have been playing together for years, giving them a distinct advantage over their disorganised rival to the south. Finishing top of the group will help Argentina avoid those heavyweights for a while, but sooner or later they will have to face up to the best of the continent, each of whose preparations have been far more solid than the Albiceleste’s.
Argentina, meanwhile, have
Messi, as always the crux upon
which his nation’s dreams
hang, perhaps more so in this
Copa than ever before. The captain has not shown the strain,
looking relaxed and light-hearted in his uncharacteristically
informal dealings with the
press prior to kick-off, a sign
that heightens hopes that this
could be the year it all comes
together on the field. It may prove to be a desperate struggle,
though. Anything can happen
at a major tournament and surprises are always possible; but
at this point one can only conclude that Argentina are far
from favourites to finally get
their hands on this coveted trophy in Brazil’s backyard and
end a drought that stretches
back to 1993.