Argentina 3 – 0 Costa Rica
Aguero 45′, 52′
di Maria 63′
Estadio Mario Alberto Kempes, July 11th – Group A
Sergio Batista will have breathed a huge sigh of relief at the end of his team’s 3-0 victory over an inexperienced and experimental Costa Rican side to progress through to the quarter finals of the Copa America.
Ricardo La Volpe’s side will know that they were equal to the task of stemming the Argentinian flow for 44 minutes and were unfortunate to go behind, as Fernando Gago’s shot took a deflection and Leonel Moreira in the Costa Rican goal could only push it out into the path of Sergio Aguero, who had a simple tap in. Up until this point the Central American side’s brand of free form zonal marking had been enough to stop Argentina scoring.
La Volpe should be commended for how organised the side were in the first 45. Broadly playing a 3-5-2, with Josue Martinez dropping deep from the forward line into midfield when they lost the ball, the intriguing characteristic of the team was their interchanging of positions according to the circumstance they faced. A prime example of this was, nominally, centre back Oscar Duarte. The 22 year old were often pop up in central midfield when Argentina had the ball deep, leaving the other two centre backs, Jhonny Acosta and Francisco Calvo, to contend with the lone striker Gonzalo Higuain and to make up numbers in midfield. Should Duarte be caught high up the field, then one of the wing backs will make the numbers at the back, or even one of the central midfielders. All the players knew what zones had to be filled when Argentina had the ball, and they ensured that, for the most part, they were. One concerning trait, however, was that of being caught out whenever Morerira’s distribution was poor, with Argentina getting their second goal from this exact circumstance. With the defence numerically short against Argentina’s tricky dribblers, they couldn’t afford to lose the ball so close to their goal but did so on several times. The other area that Argentina made the most of was to the left of the defensive three, with Francisco Calvo and Pedro Leal had a torrid time and were exposed on several occasions, even in spite of Argentina not fielding a right winger.
Even when attacking, though, Costa Rica ensured that, when possible, one player was central against the centre backs whilst the two wing positions were occupied, regularly occupied by either the wing backs or central midfielders, but on occasion by Duarte. The commitment to playing zonally was an interesting facet of the side, even if it did eventually lead to their down fall.
At half-time La Volpe made two changes, withdrawing the energetic Martinez and the dire Calvo, and introducing two attacking players. This lead to a deficit at the back, which they tried to nullify by having a fluid defensive three of Acosta, Duarte and one of the central midfielders of wing backs but the Costa Ricans looked very disorganised in the second half and struggled to contain the Argentinians. The introduction of the more defensive Luis Miguel Valle, on for the more offensive Cesar Elizondo, was intended to rectify the situation, but it’s no surprise that Lionel Messi managed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and consistently find space in the final third.
Sergio Batista, unhappy following the two draws against Bolivia and Colombia, made several changes and fielded a very attacking eleven, starting, effectively, three strikers and a winger in front of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago. It was expected that Aguero would start on the right of the three that started behind Gonzalo Higuain, with Angel di Maria on the left and Messi central, but instead Aguero started on the left, whilst Messi and di Maria seemed to occupy the same space in the middle. This limited the effectiveness of Messi, with Costa Rica not being stretched as there was nobody attacking down the right for large parts of the first half. This lack of a right winger, however, could have been one of the reasons Calvo got consistently caught out, with his lack of concentration being exposed by first Higuain – he left Higuain free in the same position later in the half, also – and then Aguero, but was fortunate that Moreira was able to save without much difficulty.
Although Argentina began to express themselves a lot more freely in the second half, it was primarily down to the deficiencies of Costa Rica rather than through Argentina finding the balance they so desperately require. Angel di Maria’s role throughout the ninety seemed ill-defined, with him playing centrally but without having much impact on the game, although he did score the third, and in the final half hour – before being substituted – he did prosper more, attacking from a deep central midfield position, but whether this is a long term solution is debatable.
Batista’s problem is how to balance a side with an abundance of attacking talent, but is lacking defensively, and arguably, in central midfield. Following Lavezzi’s clumsy tackle in added time he is now suspended for the quarter final, so he can’t be the man to come in and give the side width on the right, but even if he weren’t suspended, which of Batista’s sacred cows would be sacrificed? Aguero is the only player who looks like scoring, Messi was integral to the side’s second half performance and Higuain, although he fluffed his lines on several occasions through this match, is needed to give the attack a centre of gravity, whilst Angel di Maria seems to be one of Batista’s preferred choices to start. Another man who could play the Higuain role, Diego Milito, yet to play at all, doesn’t seem trusted to come in, while Carlos Tevez seems like his head is somewhere else entirely. The lack of a trusted left back must be another concern, also, with Javier Zanetti playing there again, whilst Pablo Zabaleta, although a talented and functional full back in his own right, is never going to be the marauding full back needed to provide Argentina width.
It is evident that in spite of Argentina’s progression, there is still a lot of work for Sergio Batista to do in order to keep them in the competition. Costa Rica’s young side will have learnt a lot from the competition, and still have a chance to qualify via the best placed third placed teams, but that is dependent on Venezuela defeating Paraguay in their last group game, and with Venezuela already qualified, it doesn’t seem likely.