Ecuador vs. Argentina: Six Things We Learned from World Cup Qualifier
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Argentina remained top of the South American World Cup Qualifying group standings with a 1-1 draw against Ecuador in Quito on Tuesday night.
In an entertaining affair, the visitors took an early lead, courtesy of a Sergio Aguero penalty, before the hosts struck back via a Segundo Castillo header.
Lionel Messi came off the bench in the second half, but was unable to make a difference on the scoreboard, and Javier Mascherano was sent off in incredible circumstances.
Here's what we learned from an action-packed encounter.
A Five-Man Backline Does Not Necessarily Mean Better Protection Down the Flanks
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Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella made an adjustment to his side's usual 4-3-3 formation, opting for a 5-3-1-1 in an attempt to stifle the threat from Ecuador's speedy, skillful wide men.
The tactic backfired, however, as Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero ran amok, causing all sorts of problems for the defenders who were supposed to be marking them
Valencia gave Argentina right-back Marcos Rojo plenty to think about, and Montero completely blitzed Gino Peruzzi on the other flank, using his footwork and quicksilver pace to leave the Velez man for dead on numerous occasions.
The problem with adding an extra man in defense to provide width is that it leaves less midfielders to help out when the full-backs find themselves in trouble. This flaw was exposed as Montero repeatedly glided past a back-peddling Peruzzi.
The simplest-looking solution, like putting more defenders along the back line to give yourself more width, is not always the right one.
Manchester City and Inter Target Gino Peruzzi Is Not There Yet
Gino Peruzzi is considered one of the brightest prospects in domestic Argentine football at the moment, but his display against Ecuador shows he still has a way to go before he can be considered the next Javier Zanetti.
The 20-year-old right-back is probably best known for the superb job he did of shackling Neymar when his Velez Sarsfield side met Santos over two legs in the Copa Libertadores last year. Even putting that performance aside, he has continued to impress as both a solid defender and an attacking threat going forward down the right.
Inter Milan have long been linked with the elegant full-back, who view him as a potential Zanetti replacement according to Adriano Boin at Forza Italia, while Rob Bagchi of The Guardian reports that Manchester City are also interested in snaring the player.
Against the elusive Jefferson Montero, however, Peruzzi often appeared flummoxed and out of his depth.
To be fair on the young Argentine, many a veteran defender would have had trouble against a winger in such blistering form as Montero was against Sabella's men on Tuesday night, but this match should serve as a reminder to potential suitors that Peruzzi is not yet the finished product.
Perhaps, he just needs to garner a little experience in a league played at a faster pace than Argentina's Primera.
Regardless of this lackluster showing, he is unquestionably a top-class talent.
Ecuador Have Plenty of Attacking Threats
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Fleet-footed wingmen aside, Ecuador showed they have plenty of players that would trouble almost any opponent.
If they are able to consolidate their current third-place standing in the qualifying table and book a place in Brazil, they certainly have the potential to cause a stir.
Their goalscorer against Argentina, Segundo Castillo, obviously offers a significantly real threat, as he outjumped a much taller Federico Fernandez with ease, but his ability to hit powerful shots from distance is also a valuable attribute for a defensive midfielder.
Felipe Caicedo is a burly target man who gives the support players something solid to aim at, while Joao Rojas proved a handful for Argentina's defense with his intelligent movement and build-up play.
Perhaps, one thing they are lacking that would make them even more potent is a traditional No. 10, offering a creative spark through the middle, an idea offered up by South American football expert Rupert Fryer on Twitter:
@Rupert_Fryer: I thought Ecuador lacked a 10 again tonight. Montero and Valencia caused lots of problems wide, but they lack creation in the centre.
Angel Di Maria Has Become a Leader for Argentina
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Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria tends to divide opinion. Though he is often criticized for going down too easily, or making bad decisions on the field, he must be doing something right as coaches at the club and international level almost never fail to pick him in their starting 11s.
He repays them by consistently giving his all to the cause. Not only is he tactically disciplined, he is blessed with both pace and stamina, making him extremely useful to his side. Though much better known for his offensive capabilities, Di Maria does not shirk his duties in defense either.
With Gonzalo Higuain absent from the match against Ecuador, Lionel Messi starting from the bench and Sergio Aguero not having the best of games, Di Maria demonstrated that he is also prepared to shoulder responsibility for Argentina when it comes to providing attacking impetus.
Though his execution was not always of the highest order, the man they call "Noodle" was heavily involved whenever the Albicelestes ventured into the attacking third against Ecuador.
If Argentina are to win the World Cup next year, they will need players like Di Maria to take some of the creative burden off Messi.
Argentina Will Struggle in the World Cup If Messi Gets Injured
It is an obvious point to make, but if Argentina lose their captain and focal point at any stage during the World Cup tournament in Brazil next year, they will struggle to adjust.
While Messi was once criticized for not doing enough when wearing the sky blue and white jersey, nowadays the concern is that Argentina have become too reliant on the Barcelona star.
"La Pulga" has not been able to recover fully from his hamstring injury in time for Argentina's last two qualifiers, against Colombia and Ecuador, and his limited participation has been telling.
The Albicelestes lose so much when their talisman is not on the park, the extent of which became obvious when a half-fit Messi was substituted on in the second half of both matches. Though his movement and fitness were obviously limited, the effect his presence had on both his teammates and the opposition was profound.
Though Alejandro Sabella has plenty of other superstar players to call on, without Messi, it's just not the same.
Mascherano's Madness Shows Anything Can Happen in South American Football
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South American football is never short of weird and wonderful occurrences. This unpredictability is one of its most endearing characteristics.
You can never quite tell what is going to happen next, as proved once again on Tuesday night.
With just a few minutes remaining in the match, midfielder Javier Mascherano was being carted off with a knock on the back of a medical cart, when, suddenly, he took exception to the driving skills of the man behind the wheel and decided, amazingly, to lash out at him with a kick.
Mascherano was duly red-carded, and chaos ensued as he went ballistic at police and match officials alike.
It was extraordinary stuff and a reminder never to look away from the screen for a moment when there is a CONMEBOL fixture taking place.