Argentina, along with Uruguay, are the Copa America’s joint most successful team with 14 titles each and a demanding home crowd will expect la Albiceleste to add to that haul on their own patch.
Arch rivals Brazil have won four of the past five tournaments, whilst Argentina have not won the competition in six attempts – losing to la Selecao in the last two finals. Traditionally Argentina have had one eye on the future during the tournament, but even with the World Cup another three years off new coach Sergio Batista has named a full strength pack.
From an English perspective, Liverpool’s Maxi Rodriguez and the Newcastle pair of Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez have failed to make the cut into an exceptionally talented 23 man squad. The enviable dilemma for Batista will be how to form a front three from Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Diego Milito, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and, of course, Lionel Messi.
Despite global appreciation of Messi’s sublime talents, it appears the only place the world’s best player does not fully convince is back home in Argentina, where natives have seized on his indifferent form for the national side. Nevertheless, it was Messi who scored a typically brilliant individual solo goal in the 90th minute against Brazil to grab a win in Batista’s first game in full-time charge.
Like his predecessor Diego Maradona, Batista has gone on record to say he will tinker with the teams shape in order to coax the most from his main man. Whilst Argentina’s forward assets may parallel that of the Catalan giants, Batista must be wary of the breathtaking defensive incompetence which led to their World Cup demise. Martin Demechelis, Gabriel Heinze and Nicolas Otamendi have largely been jettisoned after the Germany drubbing, but the new look back four does not convince much either. Javier Zanetti will be 40 by the time the next World Cup comes around yet retains his virtually constitutional berth at right-back with Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta on the other side flanking Ezequiel Garay and Nicolas Burdisso.
Aiming to breach the literal and metaphoric chasm between front and back will be a midfield marshaled by captain Javier Mascherano, partnered by either two of Esteban Cambiasso, Ever Banega, Fernando Gago or the much sought after Javier Pastore.
Group A should pose little problems early on as the hosts face the erratic Colombia, a below altitude Bolivia and Costa Rica’s under 23 team. They should then face the best third placed qualifier in the quarters with the division of the draw meaning they cannot face Brazil until the final.
In past tournaments Argentina have had a knack of breezing impressively through the early rounds before going home empty handed. Batista is charged with ending those shortfalls by using more tactical acumen than demonstrated during Maradona’s madcap regime.
In practice Batista should be preparing and priming this squad for the 2014 World Cup, but anything less than lifting the Copa America on home soil will make the ’86 winner a marked man even before CONEMBOL qualifying gets going.
One to watch – Lionel Messi: Inevitably. The mantra of being named Maradona’s heir apparent is more of a millstone than a milestone in Argentina, and it is one that Messi is yet to fully embrace. Messi has never been able to wholly reproduce his club form consistently for country, but still possesses the unique ability to win any game on his own.
Zanetti – Garay – Burdisso – Zabaleta
Banega – Mascherano – Pastore