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SPORTS | 12-10-2023 23:57

Captain Otamendi makes it three in three for unstoppable Argentina

The Albiceleste armband does seem to bestow superhuman powers on its bearer, and on Thursday it was Nicolás Otamendi who was the beneficiary as the defender scored one of the finest goals of his career to set Argentina on the way to another World Cup qualifying victory.

It was a night where Argentina needed a captain's performance, and once more their captain did not let them down. With a stunning volley to open the scoring the great Lionel Me... Sorry, force of habit. The Albiceleste armband does seem to bestow superhuman powers on its bearer, and on Thursday it was Nicolás Otamendi who was the beneficiary as the defender scored one of the finest goals of his career to set Argentina on the way to another World Cup qualifying victory.

That the Scaloneta rolled on with its third consecutive win over Paraguay was hardly surprising. The reigning world champions are simply unstoppable at the moment, and the game appeared a mismatch from the third minute onwards when Otamendi smashed home a corner to bring the Monumental to its feet.

This team is on a roll, and played with a swagger and chemistry almost unheard of in the disjointed, interrupted world of international football. What is more, it did so with its talisman sitting comfortably on the bench, content to watch his team-mates and eventual successors prove they are far from a one-man band.

Messi has been struggling since the last qualifying round in September with a somewhat mysterious injury, which has curtailed his involvement in Inter Miami's last desperate push for an MLS play-off berth. His absence has been sorely noted there, but fortunately Lionel Scaloni has rather more resources at his disposal than Gerardo Martino. In adversity there is opportunity: in this case, to finally unleash on the world the dynamic attacking duo of Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez.

The pair more than lived up to the billing during an electric first half, dispelling any doubts that they can function together against a defence as well-drilled and uncompromising as Paraguay's. Indeed, the only surprise was that the away team limped into the dressing room at half-time just one goal down after being comprehensively outplayed and pinned back deep into their own half for the entirety of the first 45 minutes.

It was so much fun that Messi could not help himself. The veteran wizard entered for the action for Álvarez after the break and showed no ill-effect from his recent fitness struggles, beguiling the Paraguay backline with his usual lightning feet and uncanny ability to carry the ball past a sea of opponents. He even came close to scoring what would have been one of his most spectacular goals even by Leo's own standards when a deep corner struck the post, narrowly denying him that much-coveted Olympic goal.

The woodwork proved to be his greatest adversary right at the death, this time keeping out a trademark floating free-kick. Somehow Paraguay limited the freewheeling hosts to just that solitary goal, which appeared to be their primary objective from the opening minutes onward. Perhaps, then another fine performance from Argentina did not receive its just rewards on the scoresheet; but once more there was plenty to like from the display, not least that budding strike duo who might just have the nation's football future in safe hands without their inspirational captain.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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