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SPORTS | 12-11-2020 23:43

Argentina's perfect start cut short by ever-competitive Paraguay

Argentina went into Thursday's World Cup qualifier hoping to extend their perfect start to the competition, but had to settle for a tense 1-1 draw against a combative Paraguay side

The Albiceleste went into Thursday's World Cup qualifier hoping to extend their perfect start to the competition, but had to settle for a tense 1-1 draw against ever-competitive Paraguay. 

At times, paradoxically, the hosts showed some of their best football so far on this road to Qatar 2022; VAR, however, and the woodwork, were determined to ensure that they would be leaving La Bombonera with just a single point that nevertheless leaves Argentina on solid ground ahead of a daunting trip to Peru on November 17.

Lionel Scaloni is never short of a proverbial rabbit or two up his sleeve when it comes to selection, and the Argentina coach surprised everyone when, reacting to the loss of Nicolás Tagliafico, he drafted in Stuttgart forward Nicolás González in the unfamiliar role of left-back. 

To his credit González gave a good account of himself early on, in stark contrast to many of his defensive colleagues who faced the rapid Paraguayan onslaught with all the composure of startled deer staring at car headlights.

The Albiceleste creaked several times in the opening minutes under the ferocity of Paraguay's brutal pressing and just over 20 minutes in were a goal behind. 

Lucas Martínez Quarta was left badly exposed against the flying Miguel Almirón and found no better remedy than to fell the Guaraní dangerman with his backside, leading to a penalty which San Lorenzo's Ángel Romero easily converted past the flailing Franco Armani. 

Romero enhanced his villain status to the (imaginary) Bombonera crowd minutes later with a reckless hit on Exequiel Palacios' spine, forcing the midfielder to head off the field early in no little pain while everyone in a blue and white shirt questioned the decision to sanction the striker with a yellow rather than red card.

Even with the likes of Lionel Messi, Lautaro Martínez and Lucas Ocampos up front, Argentina were finding things hard-going against their uncompromising visitors, each player barely allowed a moment on the ball before a Paraguay marker came homing in for the kill. 

When the goal did come, though, it was in surprising fashion. First, it arrived via a set-piece, and against Paraguay no less; an aberration that will no doubt spark a bitter public inquiry back in Asunción for this flagrant betrayal of national tradition. Second, that none other than González popped up in the area and soared highest to beat Antony Silva in the net, restoring a justified parity in an evenly matched first half that stood out for its physicality rather than for any sustained attractive football.

When the game restarted it was the much-loathed VAR's turn to take centre-stage. First, a strong Paraguay penalty call was rebuffed after Nicolás Otamendi handled in the area; then, moments later, a brilliant Argentina goal finished off by Lionel Messi was ruled out due to a foul which occurred right under the referee's nose and a good two minutes before Leo's decisive shot. It was fated not to be the captain's night, as he struck back with a fine free-kick that rattled the crossbar after Silva did just enough to avert the danger.

That indeed was to be as close as the Albiceleste or indeed anybody on the field came to breaking the deadlock, despite the introduction of Ángel Di María to the home side which felt as awkward as it did anachronic and ultimately ineffective. 

Ultimately there was nothing to separate the two teams; but as Scaloni's men surrendered their 100 percent start to World Cup qualifying the feeling lingered that with a little more sustained attacking effort and a portion of luck they could on another night made it three wins out of three.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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