Argentina’s 1-0 Copa America victory over Jamaica on Saturday was as lopsided a one-goal affair as you are likely to see at the finals of a major international tournament. But the Caribbean nation never gave up, and despite the win, the South American heavyweights were left puzzled at how they failed to kill off the game much earlier.
The game resembled a children’s fairytale. The big bad Albiceleste wolves Lionel Messi, celebrating his 100th cap, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain bore down on the Jamaican house. “I’ll huff, I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” the attackers seemed to bellow at the Reggae Boyz, who sought refuge in the safety of their own penalty area.
But the Jamaicans, playing for nothing but pride in Vina del Mar after suffering two narrow defeats in their opening Group B games, were unperturbed. Led by Dwayne Miller, who was in inspired form between the posts, the underdogs blew a gigantic raspberry at the predatory Albiceleste. The wolves threw everything they had into breaking down the brick house, but it was no use.
Higuain made the breakthrough early on, but from there, it was an exercise in frustration for Messi and Co. The ball was almost exclusive property of the men in blue and white, and Miller was continually called into action, but a repeat of the 5-0 1998 World Cup mauling—led by the long-haired warrior Gabriel Batistuta—refused to materialise. How Argentina would have loved to call on Batigol for Saturday’s game.
Centurion Messi may well pass the former Fiorentina legend in goals scored for the national team, but he is not Batistuta. Neither is Higuain, who continually found all the right positions in the Group B finale but failed to convert.
Argentina have not by any means been poor so far in the Copa America, but this victory once more exposed three big limitations under manager Gerardo Martino: a lack of killer instinct when dominating play, an inability to get the most out of the star names, which dot the 23-man squad, and a worrying drop-off in performance and intensity in the latter stages of each game.
“The players arrived, having played with 50 to 70 matches under their belts, and we had only a week to prepare for the tournament,” Martino said before the Jamaica match, per Richard Arrowsmith of the Daily Mail. “We can do little more than just take care of them.”
That kind of excuse fails to convince. Martino’s argument shows that the Argentina team is filled with players used to playing at the highest level twice a week almost every week, against opposition far more demanding than Jamaica. Nearly all of Tata’s sides have had similar problems with late-game tiredness, with similar explanations coming out at both Newell’s Old Boys and Barcelona when the going got tough.
That is not to paint a wholly negative image of Argentina’s Copa campaign. They accomplished first place in their group, and that is always the key objective in a major tournament.
All three games have shown that the Albiceleste have no problems imposing themselves on any team in front of them, and with Sergio Aguero back into the attack for the quarter-finals, they have reached the knockouts with a fully fit squad raring to go.
But we have a right to expect more from the World Cup finalists. Argentina have negotiated their way through the group stage without ever moving out of second gear. And that simply won’t be enough if Messi and Co. hold serious hopes of breaking their international trophy drought and bringing the Copa America back to Buenos Aires.