With Ecuador and Argentina perched atop their World Cup qualifying group, each side stood to gain even more ground with a win on Tuesday. Neither side took advantage of the opportunity with a victory, however, playing to a tense 1-1 draw.
It didn’t take long for Argentina to jump out to an early lead in the contest. In just the fourth minute of action, Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero was awarded a penalty kick with which he found the back of the net opposite a diving Alexander Dominguez. Before the match even began to heat up, the Argentinian side held a decided advantage (via Argentina Football):
But in the 17th minute, Ecuador struck back.
Segundo Castillo took advantage of a free kick that made its way behind Argentina’s back line for an easy header from four yards out to even the score at 1-1. And as both Argentina Football and Fisseha Tegegn foreshadowed, it was a result of Argentina’s tentativeness in the defensive third:
That lack of aggression showed throughout the first half, as Ecuador continually bombarded Argentina in its own third. While the center of Argentina’s defense held firm, its fullbacks struggled as Ecuador applied heavy pressure from the wings, as noted by Sam Kelly:
The remainder of the first half would pass without a go-ahead goal, but Ecuador remained in the driver’s seat as its aggressive attack kept Argentina from sustaining any long possessions. While the feel of the match very much favored Ecuador, the halftime stats weren’t all that unbalanced.
But stats can certainly be misleading. For as well as Ecuador played in the first 45, Argentina was fortunate to enter the half with the score knotted up at 1-1, even after showing signs of life very early in the contest.
The second half picked up much where the first half ended, however. Within the first two minutes of play, Ecuador created another terrific scoring opportunity as Argentina’s back line appeared to be caught off guard by a Antonio Valencia pass to an unmarked Joao Rojas in the box, as noted by Tegegn and Argentina Football:
As the second half wore on and Ecuador remained in control, it was becoming more and more obvious that Argentina may be forced to put Lionel Messi in the lineup to spark his side’s attack. While Argentina’s defense was its biggest issue through 50 minutes, it didn’t help that Ecuador so easily disrupted Argentina’s possessions (via Sam Kelly):
And in the 61st minute, fans got what they were hoping for.
Messi entered the match in favor of Aguero as Argentina looked to jump-start an anemic attack that got little use in the opening minutes of the second 45 (via Barcastuff):
The impact of Messi’s arrival was immediately felt by both sides. While the match would remain scoreless in the ensuing minutes, the superstar striker certainly re-energized a squad in desperate need of some momentum. And as it turned out, Ecuador took notice too, immediately backing off on the attack in favor of containing Messi in its final third.
Argentina Football called it the “Messi Effect,” and rightfully so:
With Messi on the pitch, the match turned into a battle for momentum at midfield, neither side making much progress on the attack. As is often the case in the closing minutes of tied matches, Ecuador and Argentina played conservative football with both squads hoping to avoid a big second-half mistake.
Ecuador almost made one in the 78th minute when Angel di Maria found himself facing a tremendous scoring opportunity, but Dominguez got enough pressure on the striker to force a terrible shot that went well wide of the net, effectively wasting an opportunity for Argentina to take a commanding late-match lead.
Messi created plenty of opportunities in the final minutes as well, but as Bleacher Report’s own Alex Gruber pointed out, he simply couldn’t find a way to finish:
But as quickly as Argentina created some late chances, Ecuador flipped the pitch and created havoc in its opponent’s final third. As the clock continued clicking, it seemed neither side would be able to break free of the 1-1 deadlock, as Ray Marcham suggested on Twitter:
It looked like Ecuador may have caught the break it needed to net a late winner, though. In the 87th minute, Argentina captain Javier Mascherano was being carted off the pitch after an apparent injury, only to be sent off for kicking one of the medics next to the cart. With a one-man advantage and seven minutes of added time, Ecuador was in prime position to pull off a massive victory (via Tancredi Palmeri):
Ecuador used the advantage to apply added pressure in the closing minutes, effectively neutralizing any effect Messi had on Argentina’s chances since coming on.
But Argentina deserves credit for its ability to hang on to end the match. Despite a bevy of scoring chances on Ecuador’s part, the Argentinian side never succumbed to the pressure and fended off an Ecuador attack that wasted far too many opportunities.
In the end, both sides would settle for one point, but for as well as Ecuador played, the draw had to feel like a huge waste of an opportunity.
For Argentina, playing to a 1-1 draw was far from an expected outcome, though it could have been much worse if not for Ecuador’s wasteful attack in the second half.
Mascherano didn’t play a great match, but it wasn’t his on-pitch performance that earned him a below-average grade.
The captain’s foolish display when being carted off the pitch easily could have resulted in an Argentina loss, given the one-man disadvantage that resulted in Mascherano being sent off. Thankfully for both him and his team, Ecuador was unable to capitalize in the final 10 minutes of play.
Still, one doesn’t expect that kind of behavior from a veteran member of the squad, and he probably should have earned less than a C- for his outing.
Lionel Messi, B-
Messi failed to score in his 30-plus minutes on the pitch, but his presence was enough to neutralize Ecuador’s stifling attack and give his side enough momentum to nearly take an advantage late in the match.
Granted, Messi’s performance didn’t match the impact of his appearance, but there’s something to be said for being able to change the flow of a game without doing a whole lot.
Messi did see a good deal of opportunities, but he also looked winded in the thin air of the venue. In all, it was a less-than-stellar outing from Messi, but certainly no cause for alarm.
Ecuador’s wingers created tremendous havoc for Argentina’s back line throughout the contest, and Montero was a big reason for that.
The young winger played a terrific match, continuously steering the action from the flanks without much resistance. In the end, Ecuador was unable to capitalize, but Montero did his part to propel the attack.
While Argentina didn’t see as many good scoring chances as the Ecuadorian side, Dominguez made sure the opposition wouldn’t capitalize on any of them. Despite his early missteps on the Aguero goal, the keeper buckled down and did his part to ensure Argentina wouldn’t pull ahead at any point in the match.
Sometimes the best defense is a strong offense, but even in that case, Dominguez looked awfully good as a result.
With the draw, Argentina picks up a point in the standings and remains in lead of the South American group. They are set to face off with last-place Paraguay on Sept. 10 for their next qualifying tilt.
Ecuador remains in third place with the draw with 21 points, two points shy of second-place Colombia. The two sides will square off on Sept. 6.