NIZHNY NOVGOROD: A few hours had passed after Argentina’s worst defeat in 60 years yet one of their greatest defenders, probably one of the finest to play the game, was still in a state of shock and disbelief.
Argentina’s current defence would probably the worst in its history yet the thought of them crumbling to Croatia, let alone being spanked 3-0, hadn’t even crossed Roberto Ayala’s mind. His eyes were enough to tell the story. When he spoke, it became even more obvious how hurt he was.
Ayala spoke to Dawn in Spanish yet the power of human expression is such that what is being said can so easily be deciphered. The former Valencia great, who featured for Argentina at the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups, indicated that the blame for Argentina being on the brink of an inglorious exit, despite having one of the greatest players of all time in Lionel Messi, lay with coach Jorge Sampaoli.
Argentina’s defence was a shambles against a Croatia side that got past them at will. Sampaoli played with a three-man backline featuring Manchester City’s Nicolas Otamendi, Gabriel Mercado of Sevilla and Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico. It was a ploy that backfired against a shape-shifting Croatian midfield that alternated between five and three players according to the demand of the situation. Granted Croatia were gifted the lead through a calamitous error by goalkeeper Willy Cabellero but their defence looked susceptible every time they were put under pressure.
“A team is not only about its defence,” said Ayala, in Russia as a commentator for Argentine television, when asked if the decision to play three at the back was a reason Argentina lost. “It’s about the work being done behind the scenes. Argentina were in the match but an individual error [by Caballero] happened and they couldn’t respond.”
After being held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland in their opening Group ‘D’ match, Argentina went into the match knowing well that they needed all three points to keep their destiny in their own hands. Now, as things stand, not even victory against Nigeria in their final group game would be able to take them through.
Sampaoli, in the training sessions before the match, had practiced with three at the back and it was no surprise that it was the formation he went with for the game. But to excel at the high press that he likes to employ, the Argentina defenders needed a lot of pace and quality.
“It doesn’t matter how many defenders play,” said Ayala. “What is important is to defend well, within and without spaces.”
After the first goal, Sampaoli was forced to change. He brought on both Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala in his desperate search of a leveller. But that meant Argentina left space at the back and Croatia exploited that; Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic slamming in two more goals to make it Argentina’s worst World Cup defeat since a 6-1 reverse to Czechoslovakia in 1958.
“The problem was with the reaction to conceding,” said Ayala. “They tried to come back into the game and pushed towards the goal but were not able to succeed. They brought offensive players on to offer something but it didn’t work.”
If Ayala’s face depicted hurt, the players looked shattered. Their World Cup aspirations are declining rapidly. Argentina kept the press pack waiting before showing up and no one stopped to take questions. Messi stared into the distance as he followed his team-mates, led out by Ever Banega.
The Argentine talisman didn’t even turn his head to look at the reporters trying to get his reaction. Messi had become a recluse at Argentina’s training camp in Bronnitsy after the Iceland game. You wonder what he would do now.
Against Croatia, Messi didn’t turn up for Argentina, who make no secret that they look to the totemic Barcelona forward for inspiration. Once again, inevitably, there will be questions about his legacy with Argentina. His failure to deliver a World Cup, which looks likely unless there is a dramatic turnaround in form and fortune, will see him remain a rung below the great Diego Maradona. Maradona was in the stands at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium and was in tears at the end.
Messi had retired following Argentina’s loss in the 2016 Copa America Centenario only to be convinced to retract from his decision and it was he who ensured Albiceleste qualified for the World Cup. Rumours are abound that failure in Russia would potentially see him bid farewell to international football.
Sampaoli was hounded by Argentinean media in the post-match press conference with many claiming he had let the nation down.
The Argentine who made his reputation with Chile, leading them to the 2015 Copa America title when the beat Argentina in the final, accepted responsibility for the defeat. “I’m the one responsible for making the decisions,” he said. “Today’s defeat is all my responsibility.”
He went as far as admitting that he had failed in exploiting the best out of Messi. “The reality of squad clouds Messi’s brilliance,” he said. “Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel.”
Probably it is Argentina’s infatuation with trying to play like Barca, the team where Messi proves every other day he’s amongst the world’s greatest players. It definitely the reason why his heir apparent Paulo Dybala isn’t given a chance, and moreover why Mauro Icardi wasn’t picked for the World Cup. There will definitely be a lot of soul-searching in the Argentina camp in the next several days.