Almost seven months later than scheduled, South America’s World Cup qualifiers ended up starting on the fifth anniversary of the opening round of the Russia 2018 campaign — when, by coincidence, Argentina were also at home to Ecuador.
On that day Argentina went down to a 2-0 defeat, their suspect defence ripped apart by the Premier League duo of Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia. The game highlighted problems — especially the lack of pace at the back — which would dog Argentina’s campaign and eventually torpedo their chances of winning that World Cup. In truth, those issues have yet to be resolved but Ecuador do not pose the same threat now and, this time around, Argentina’s road to Qatar 2022 opened up with a tame 1-0 victory, brought by a Lionel Messi penalty.
Lionel Scaloni may be a rookie coach but he has done better than expected in difficult circumstances, rebuilding the side after the train wreck of Russia 2018. It helps enormously that Messi is on board. During last year’s Copa America, the No. 10 suddenly emerged in the role of vocal leader, encouraging all around him. Argentina came out of the tournament in good spirits, which got better with a string of fine results afterwards.
The key factor was the introduction of Sevilla winger Lucas Ocampos — essentially a replacement for Angel Di Maria. The exclusion of Di Maria is controversial, as he led the assists ranking in last season’s Champions League for PSG, but Ocampos has brought plenty to the table. He can play on either wing and his capacity to work back to defend frees Messi to find space.
Against Ecuador, Scaloni was forced into a tweak. The absence through injury of Giovani Lo Celso obliged him to give up his normal 4-3-3. Instead Ocampos ran the right side of midfield, with Marcos Acuna coming in to do a similar job down the left. With Lautaro Martinez at centre forward and Messi floating, it looked more like a 4-4-2.
However, this did not prove a roaring success; the side was too stretched out. The midfield duo of Leandro Paredes and Rodrigo De Paul lacked a third member to combine with and the play flowed best when Messi dropped in to fill this role. But Ocampos was the key. He won an early penalty, charging through the defence before falling to a rash challenge from left-back Pervis Estupinan.
The award of the penalty may have been a touch harsh, but the defender paid the price for not staying on his feet and from the spot Messi made sure that price was high. Keeper Alexander Dominguez nearly got a touch but he did even better the next time he plunged to his left, turning round a precise shot from Ocampos to keep the score respectable.
Apart from the three points, the most encouraging sign for Scaloni was the sign of a relationship building between Messi and Ocampos. The Sevilla man moved to the left for the final half hour; Messi slipped him through with one superb pass, well defended by the Ecuadorians, and when Ocampos burst into the area to lay a ball back to Messi, only a deflection stopped the goal bound shot.
That aside, the game was disjointed and disappointing, which was to be expected. Both teams were ring rusty, playing their first game in 11 months and with next to no time on the training ground: Argentina were forced into a change of system and Ecuador were under a new coach, Gustavo Alfaro. Bizarrely, the match stadium, Boca Juniors’ ground, would have been much more familiar to Alfaro than he was with his own players. Until December Alfaro, an Argentine, was in charge of Boca, and he has only been with Ecuador for a month. Monday was his first meeting with many of his squad.
He can take some comfort from the way that his team defended against Messi and company. They certainly managed to keep Martinez quiet and Ecuador will look to pick up most of their points at altitude anyway.
On Tuesday, Argentina’s next port of call is at the dreaded La Paz, 3,600 metres above sea level, to face a Bolivia side who have been waiting for this moment. Three of the star names did not even travel to Sao Paulo for Friday’s game with Brazil; they have been saved especially for Argentina. This time, Scaloni will have to come up with a gameplan for extreme conditions but that’s all part of the challenge of South America’s World Cup qualifiers.