South American correspondent Tom Webber brings you all the action from the Copa America.
The question on everyone’s lips before Argentina’s final group game against Costa Rica last night was ‘How will Argentina line-up?’. They struggled in earlier games, playing as a faux-Barcelona, hoping this would bring out the best in Lionel Messi. It had the opposite effect as the Argentines lacked creativity in the middle of the park, a presence in the box, patience, and adept wing play. Would Sergio Batista swallow his pride and change formation? Yes, is the short answer. Switching a more of a 4-2-2-2 with Fernando Gago coming in for Esteban Cambiasso, while Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Ever Banega made way for Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. Higuain and Aguero played as strikers, with Di Maria operating from the left, and Messi from the right, just off the strikers.
Higuain was looking to make an instant impact and had a number of chances early in the first half. His first was somewhat of a snapshot from the corner of the box that he snatched at and dragged it wide. Later he failed to connect with the ball from a Messi cross, leaving the ball to go out for a goal kick. Batista had switched to this formation in every game when things were not going his way and it was working well for him. Argentina were creating some good chances but could not put any away. Nicolas Burdisso hit the bar from a corner by Sergio Aguero at the midpoint of the first half and you wondered if it would night. However, just before the break the goal finally came. Aguero got his first of the game after he was first to react to a botched save by Lionel Moreira from Gago’s speculative volley, in the Costa Rica goal. The young Atletico Madrid striker pounced and poked the ball into the half empty net to give his side the lead. A wave of relief passed across the stadium and Batista did not hide his emotions.
At half time it was 1-0 and Argentina were playing well. Messi was more like his usual self, causing trouble for defenders and mounting attacks. It seemed that the change of formation had relieved him of a huge amount of responsibility, allowing him to play with more freedom. They were also benefiting from having Higuain’s presence up front. He was getting heavily involved in all the moves as he showed great desire to keep his place after a back injury that put him out for a large share of the domestic season.
Messi grew as the game went on and managed to grab himself two assits. The first coming just after the break. Messi was on the ball in a central location, roughly 25 yards from the goal. Aguero made a run to his left having just peeled away from his marker slightly. This opened the angle for the Barcelona man to slip the ball in to Aguero whose first touch was perfect. It set the ball up for his next touch to be his shot and he swept the ball home with his right.
It was only 10 more minutes until Argentina got their 3rd and put the game beyond doubt. It was a similar move to the second goal however it was Angel Di Maria who was on hand to smash the ball in at the near post. The new attacking combination selected by Batista was working well and Messi was beginning to flourish. The Argentines were enjoying their football and not playing like the weight of an expectant nation was weighing them down.
The game finished 3-0 and Argentina progressed to the next round. It was Batista’s tactical change that brought the win, though it was a somewhat forced move. Surely he will now stick with this formation for the rest of the tournament. Aguero now has three for the tournament and that should guarantee him a place in the starting line for the quarter finals. Higuain perhaps should have got himself on the score sheet but the striker is lacking match practice and he was not ineffective. His presence up front is what they have been lacking and he gives their attack more of a focal point. There was a lot of pressure in regards to this game and now perhaps the Argentina team will begin to grow as the tournament goes on. They may have a tougher draw due to their positioning but now look a much better team, more capable of winning the title.
Read more from Tom at his excellent blog Purple Patch