River Plate and Argentina's Monumental home were treated to an intriguing 90 minutes of football on Friday evening, as the Albiceleste and Colombia pushed hard, but eventually had to settle for a 0-0 draw. A share of the points left neither team too upset, as they stay on course for qualification.
It was a game full of talking points, one which had a packed stadium on the edge of their seats, as they witnessed a red card for each team, a host of chances and no less than three disallowed goals. Indeed, the only thing lacking from the action was a decisive winner, which, for either of the combatants, would have all but sealed their passage into Brazil 2014.
Having negotiated the way back home from Nunez, weaving through hordes of yellow and blue shirts, Bleacher Report brings you the most important lessons to emerge from the latest South American action.
Just how important the little Barcelona wizard is to his national team could be evidenced from the stands, as he sat on the bench waiting for his chance. Every time Argentina lost possession or wasted an opportunity, the chant was unanimous, "MESSI, MESSI, MESSI!"
La Pulga eventually entered with just under 30 minutes to play, and if nothing else, helped to open up space in the Colombia defence by the sole virtue of dragging three or four markers with him every time he touched the ball. He was clearly struggling for fitness, however, as he admitted after the match to Ole: "I'm not doing great."
Without him on the pitch, neither were Argentina. There were signs of life in the partnership between Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero up front, but once Pipita was sent off, the attack quickly lost its shape, and even after the entrance of the out-of-sorts No. 10, chances were far from constant.
Messi remains a doubt for the visit to Ecuador, and it is clear that when he is on the pitch and in shape, Argentina are a different team. The fans, two of whom relieved Messi of his shirt at the final whistle in a daring robbery, will hope he is back to his best and soon.
Prior to the clash, the big draw was the meeting of, perhaps, two of the best players currently active in world football. On the Argentine side, of course, Lionel Messi; and for the Cafeteros, goalscorer extraordinaire and new Monaco recruit Radamel Falcao.
While Messi had only a minimal impact due to his late entry and lingering effects of injury, El Tigre was the biggest disappointment of the evening. More than anything, for the throngs of Colombia fans present in the Monumental, who almost seemed to outnumber the home support as a sizeable section of the stadium, were bathed in yellow and blue.
Falcao had the chance to open the scoring early on with a header that went wide, but from there, he drifted in and out of the game, missing short passes and failing to connect with his teammates.
With Jackson Martinez's withdrawal in the second half, he was left up front alone, and this only served to highlight his disappointing contribution further as Colombia stacked men behind the ball.
No need for Monaco fans to panic just yet, but Falcao's performance was well below his best.
After years of horror shows in the back four, the Albiceleste have finally stumbled on a combination of players that can hold the line well enough against threatening attacks.
Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez are efficient rather than outstanding defenders, but the three have enough quality to present a solid rearguard effort and keep Sergio Romero safe.
Colombia's chances throughout the game were few and far between—a Falcao header that flew safely wide is one of the only that comes to mind. There was plenty of possession in the final third—and occasional—danger as Pablo Armero and Juan Cuadrado attempted to overlap a rather narrow defence, but when it counted, they held firm.
The odd man out is Marcos Rojo. The ex-Estudiantes left back is a personal favourite of Alejandro Sabella from his days in La Plata, but he provides neither the solidity in defence nor the explosive talent going forward to concrete his place in the side.
Cristian Ansaldi, Boca's Juan Sanchez Mino—or even Zabaleta—switching flanks are all viable options to replace the 23-year-old.
Nobody in either Argentina nor Colombia would dare to argue that Jose Pekerman is anything but an excellent, tactically astute coach. The man who led the Albiceleste to the 2006 World Cup Finals know football inside out, and since taking over at their South American rivals has transformed Colombia into a team that looks set to qualify comfortably for the 2014 edition.
If one criticism could be levelled at the vastly experienced trainer, it is that he is rather fond of changing his tactics or personnel on the fly, valuing theory over practice.
The classic example was the substitution of Juan Roman Riquelme during the 2006 quarter-final defeat against Germany, a decision still criticised today in Argentina. The Cafeteros, meanwhile, fiercely questioned in March his choice to abandon the system which destroyed Bolivia, 5-0, to then fall to a timid defeat away to Venezuela.
Pekerman opted to sacrifice Jackson Martinez at halftime on Friday, bringing on Luis Perea in a move that signalled his intention to shut down the game and play for a point.
It was mission accomplished, but with Colombia matching Argentina across the pitch and with the two red cards leaving space for his pacey wing-backs to exploit, it was a surprisingly cautious move from the coach.
There is no argument that the best 11 whom Argentina can put on a pitch is a force to be reckoned with. Any team that contains the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria has talent to spare, and is capable of scoring goals against the toughest equation.
What happens, though, when you take some of those big names out of the equation?
This is what we will find out on Tuesday evening. Messi looked far from comfortable during his cameo in the Monumental and admitted to Ole he was a big doubt for the visit to Ecuador in Quito, while Higuain earned a red card early on and will be suspended for the second game of the series.
Pablo Zabaleta is another man who will miss out on the trip, also suspended due to accumulation of yellow cards. The onus now is on the likes of Erik Lamela, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Gino Peruzzi to come in and show they are candidates for Brazil 2014, demonstrating that Argentina have the strength in depth to be challengers.
For those of us accustomed in Argentina to the military-style segregation, offensive chants and death threats that abound in club football, being present in the Monumental was a breath of fresh air.
Yellow shirts sat happily alongside their blue and white counterparts, and while there was plenty of banter flying between the two sets of fans, there was never any threat of the atmosphere escalating.
Instead, it was left to the men on the pitch to provide the violence. Friday's fixture yielded an incredible 36 fouls, 18 for each team, which helped to disrupt the rhythm of the match and prevent both sides from playing the attractive football they are capable of.
Colombia saw six players receive yellow cards, Argentina three; while Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Zapata both received their marching orders early on, according to Tom Webber of Goal.com.
The clash which led to the pair's expulsion was more comedy than kung-fu, a misguided kick from each offender after Higuain had gone in heavily on goalkeeper David Ospina. It led to a tense, petty clash, however, with many players appearing more concerned about dishing out a heavy tackle than trying to advance with the ball.