One of Argentina’s preWorld Cup traditions in recent tournaments has been a friendly arranged on home soil against less than intimidating opposition, with the implicit objective a festival of goals and celebration to see off the nation’s heroes ahead of the main event itself. This week unheralded football powerhouse Haiti were drafted in to play that role, but the Caribbean nation came close to sinking Argentina’s lacklustre morale even further in a game that threatened to end in disaster.
It was indeed very difficult to get excited about a game that at half-time was poised at 1-0 thanks to a penalty from the talismanic Lionel Messi. Argentina’s struggles in breaking down their opponents was hardly due to Haiti’s virtues: the team had arrived in Buenos Aires just days earlier with an experimental young team, and in their sole warm-up match had struggled past third-tier Atlanta’s reserves.
Against a team that had no other game-plan than defend in numbers for dear life, the Albiceleste spluttered and floundered in one of the worst halves of football the team has played in recent memory. Only Messi looked capable of making the difference, aside from a few impressive interventions from full-back pair Eduardo Salvio and Nicolás Tagliafico and some positive signs from young Giovani Lo Celso.
Most exposed were two of the Selección’s elder statesmen, Ángel Di María and Gonzalo Higuaín, who failed to stretch Haiti’s defence and squandered the few chances they received in a game the pair will want to forget as soon as possible.
Just when those watching were ready to write off Argentina’s World Cup hopes all together, a couple of faint glimmers of hope appeared. The introduction of Cristian Pavón and Sergio Agüero galvanised that previously lacklustre attacking line, albeit aided by the rapidly tiring legs of their adversaries as the game advanced past the hour mark.
Pavón struck with a wonderful solo dribble and cross that landed perfectly at the feet of Messi, who rounded off his hattrick having previously doubled the lead with a neat rebound finish. The Boca Juniors star then received an even greater prize: the endorsement of Messi himself, the most valuable seal of approval imaginable in this team.
“I have found a new partner in Pavón. He is a very good player,” Leo signalled after the game. “He is a very quick player who can make the difference.”
Agüero then latched onto Messi’s pass to make it 4-0 on the night, continuing his scoring run in national team colours that began in previous friendlies against Russia and Nigeria. The Manchester City star is surely Argentina’s undisputed starting No. 9 in the World Cup and even more encouraging than his goal was the fact that it came from Messi’s pass, an example of an Albiceleste player combining with the captain that has been so rare in these dark days for the team.
Then, of course, there is Messi. The little No. 10 carries the weight of a nation on his shoulders, and his importance only seems to increase with every game that passes. Argentina as a whole are disjointed, pedestrian and apparent strangers to each other, but as long as the Barcelona wizard is fit and on form hopes of a decent World Cup campaign remain intact.
On the evidence of Tuesday’s game in the Bombonera, however, much more will be needed from this team as a whole if they are to avoid the humiliation of an early exit in Russia – and time is running out.