Copa America 2011: Argentina stutter out of starting blocks

Argentina 1 – 1 Bolivia
Agüero 75′        Rojas 47′

Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, July 1st – Group A

The 43rd Campeonato Sudamericano Copa América began last night with hosts, and favourites, Argentina stuttering to a 1-1 draw with perspective minnows Bolivia.

With 50,000 plus packed into the Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, Argentina will be disappointed to not start the tournament with the resounding victory that was expected of them but a potentially bigger problem for coach Sergio Batista is how to balance not only a top heavy side, but how to configure the abundance of attacking talent he has at his disposal.

Argentina lined up in the first half with an echo of Barcelona’s tactics, playing a 4-3-3 with Javier Mascherano dropping deep in between the centre backs at times whilst Leo Messi played in the centre of the attacking trident, in his now infamous ‘false 9’ role. Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso pushed high up the pitch and looked to join the attack as much as they could, whilst the full backs pushed forward to provide width when the outside forwards pushed infield. The other big call for Batista was who would play on the left of the attacking three, eventually electing to bow to public pressure and start Carlos Tevez and dropping Angel di Maria to the bench, whilst Ezequiel Lavezzi started on the right.

Bolivia, meanwhile, played high up the pitch and tried to stifle the midfield, placing the onus on Marcelo Moreno Martins, the lone forward, to hold the ball up or try and win a free kick whilst the naturalised attacking midfielder, Edivaldo Rojas, tried to support him as much as possible. Reluctant to get players ahead of the ball, Bolivia did a good job of keeping Argentina at bay over the 90 minutes, and could consider themselves unlucky not to have won the match after Moreno got in behind the Argentine back line, only to fluff his lines and only get a timid shot away at the second attempt in the 65th minute. That chance would have made it 2-0 and Argentina may well have found themselves being even more embarrassed than the eventual result.

The Bolivian goal itself came as a result of a mistake from Banega in the 47th minute. Following a corner, he miscontrolled the ball on the line after Rojas flicked the ball towards the near post and, despite Sergio Romero’s best efforts, Bolivia took the lead whilst Banega was left to take responsibility for the mistake.

Argentina struggled to retain any semblance of the fluidity they had in the first half following the early goal, and a change in formation after Batista replaced Cambiasso with Di Maria and pushed Tevez up front in a 4-2-3-1, which helped Bolivia’s tactics of stationing themselves high up the pitch. The change meant that Banega and Mascherano struggled to get the ball up the pitch, forcing Messi to drop deeper and thus eliminate the primary threat to the Bolivian back line. Messi had caused a few problems for Bolivia in the first half as he drifted around the midfield and found it easy getting past Joselito Vaca and Walter Flores, the defensive midfielders for Bolivia, and allowing the front three of Argentina free rein against the back four of Bolivia.

The other consistent threat for Argentina in the first half was Lavezzi pushing in off the right. The Napoli forward got past the left back Luis Alberto Gutierrez with consummate ease on several occasions and getting in behind the left back frequently, but found himself misplacing the final ball. The change of formation, which forced Lavezzi deeper, proved to be a welcome relief to Gutierrez who had a far more comfortable second half not having to worry about the space in behind him as consistently, coupled with Sergio Agüero’s introduction in the 70th minute, who played more centrally.

The problem that faces Batista was apparent in Tevez’s quiet evening. The diminutive forward is a crowd favourite but struggled to have much of an impact over the course of the game, but Batista seemed reluctant to remove him from the fray, instead trying to fit both him and, his preferred choice, Angel di Maria into the same eleven, but the loss of Cambiasso in midfield meant that Argentina lost much of their dominance of possession and position in the second half, and this combined with their reticence to hit the ball behind the Bolivia back line meant that they struggled to create anything until the introduction of Agüero.

After coming on for Lavezzi, Agüero was quick to make an impact, first flashing a shot wide and then scoring the equaliser for Argentina, after a deep cross from di Maria to the far post, Burdisso chested it down for the Atletico Madrid forward to hit it first time on the volley past Arias in the Bolivian goal. Agüero was unlucky a few minutes later also, after seeing his shot saved low by Arias before di Maria missed the follow up chance, blazing it over the goal. His energy gave the Bolivian defence constant problems and pushed an increasingly frustrated Argentinian side forward. They kept pressing in the final 20 minutes but struggled to create any substantial chances.

Batista now faces difficult decisions before the next game against the toughest team in the group, Colombia, knowing that anything but a win will not be received well along with the fact that they’ll go into the last game knowing they have to win, albeit against a weak Costa Rica side. Bolivia, meanwhile, know that they have a very real chance of beating Costa Rica in their next match and could go into the final group match against Colombia with a good chance of qualifying to the next phase, but if they fail to qualify they’ll be left to wonder what could have been had Moreno had more confidence when his chance arrived.

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