Serious faces and no sign of the side’s main stars – the scene on Wednesday morning in Argentina’s camp in Doha, a day after the dismal World Cup debut and 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia.
All eyes were on coach Lionel Scaloni. His winning streak at the helm of the Albiceleste was broken at 36, at the most unexpected moment. The reigning Copa América champions, who had impressed in recent matches, were unable to overcome two early goals from the Saudis at the start of the second half.
During training, the day after the defeat, the players who did not start the previous day took part in a full session. Maybe Scaloni can find a better formula with some of those players. Saturday’s match against Mexico, in the second round of fixtures for Group C, is crucial. Another defeat could eliminate Argentina.
Alejandro 'Papu' Gomez had been recovering from a knee knock. He started on Tuesday as a replacement for injured midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, who was unable to make the 26-man squad.
For a different dynamic in midfield, Scaloni could opt for Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister. Another option for that line is Benfica’s in-form midfielder Enzo Fernández, who came on in the second half on Tuesday in place of Leandro Paredes.
In defence, there could also be a shake-up. Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Cristian Romero, who started against Saudi Arabia was off-pace following recent injury problems. Manchester United stopper Lisandro Martinez, who came on in the second half, could be considered as a possibility.
The same goes for Gonzalo Montiel and Marcos Acuña, possible alternatives at full-back if Scaloni decides to make a replacement for the two chosen for the first match, Nahuel Molina and Nicolás Tagliafico.
In attack, PSG star Lionel Messi is the star performer, backed up by two forwards who ply their trade in Italy, Angel Di Maria and Lautaro Martinez. Their places look assured for now.
‘La Pulga’ scored Argentina's only goal, from the penalty spot, and had another goal disallowed for offside in the first half, while Lautaro had two goals disallowed.
They should get another chance to hit the back of the net, barring a surprise, on Saturday against Mexico's inspiring keeper Guillermo 'Memo' Ochoa.
Facing the press
Messi, 35, and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, 30, were put in charge of speaking to the media on Tuesday after the defeat to Saudi Arabia. The rest of the players filed past without pausing for press requests.
The team decided the captain had to speak and Messi stopped to send a message.
"It's a very hard blow. We didn't expect to start like this. We were hoping to get off to a good start, with the three points, as we were talking about before the game. That would have given us peace of mind. But this group stands out for its togetherness, for the strength of the group,” said the Albiceleste number 10.
"It's a very hard blow, a defeat that hurts, but we have to keep believing in ourselves. We're going to try to beat Mexico," he said.
Scaloni, taking questions at a press conference at the Lusail stadium, was also keen to play down the drama. He concentrated on the objectives ahead: beating ‘El Tri,’ who drew 0-0 with Poland on Saturday, a result that in principle gives the Argentines some breathing space.
“There's nothing left to do but get up. There's no other reading, we're going to get up, keep our heads up and win both games," said the 44-year-old coach, the youngest of the 32 national team coaches at Qatar 2022.
Tuesday's starters and substitutes were working on Wednesday to get to full fitness. It was a day of reflection for everyone at base camp, of what could have been.
"It was difficult for us to play. They closed in, they didn't leave any space. We couldn't find a way to move [the ball] well from side to side," Messi said Tuesday.
In the midst of the storm after the defeat, the players enjoyed a moment of relaxation on Wednesday with a visit from their families.
Meanwhile, Scaloni and his coaching staff were searching for the formula that will allow the team to excel against a Mexico side, with Gerardo Martino at the helm, who knows Argentina all-too-well.
By Diego Reinares, AFP