They had to fight for it, but Argentina will be pleased with their share of the points from Tuesday’s 1-1 draw against Ecuador in World Cup qualifying.
Not once in their previous six World Cup qualifier matches, at the altitude of Quito, had Ecuador failed to record a win, and that the streak is over speaks volumes about the side that ended it; a side often passed over when discussing World Cup favourites, but one that will surely be heard from a year from now in Brazil.
And that they got their result without much of a contribution from the best player in the world says even more about Argentina’s qualities, about the adaptability of the squad and the cleverness with which manager Alejandro Sabella arranges it.
In a city where La Albiceleste hadn’t won in 12 years, and where an elevation of 9,350 feet has left many a quality opponent gasping for breath, Sabella played cautious from the outset, deploying a 5-3-2 formation designed to soak up the inevitable pressure before catching Ecuador on the break.
As it happened, the guests needed barely a minute to get the opportunity they had surely been prepared to wait more than an hour for—goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez conceding a penalty after bringing Rodrigo Palacio to the ground inside the area. Sergio Aguero stepped up to do the business once the early chaos had settled and the card was presented, and he made no mistake putting Argentina ahead, 1-0.
Sabella’s men continued to force the issue in the early minutes, and Aguero and Angel Di Maria were especially active in carving out opportunities.
But in the 17th minute, Walter Ayovi’s superbly flighted ball from a free-kick to the left of goal found Segundo Castillo unmarked, and the Puebla midfielder made no mistake with a free header from in close.
From there, Ecuador were firmly in the ascendancy, and until the whistle blew to end a fascinating match after seven minutes of second-half stoppage time, La Tri had the look of a team destined to find the winner they so desperately craved, and perhaps deserved.
But it wasn’t to be. For all their possession, the hosts gave Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero surprisingly little to worry about, although Getafe’s Federico Fernandez made a handful of vital blocks and was generally solid in defense after failing to pick up Castillo on the Ecuador equalizer.
Argentina even managed to sustain a late barrage after the ejection of Javier Mascherano, who had been shown a red card after kicking the driver of the cart carrying him off the field in the 87th minute. Luis Saritama and Renato Ibarra had meaningful opportunities in stoppage time, although both were unable to hit the target.
Lionel Messi, meanwhile, once again came on for the final half-hour and, once again, was next to unnoticeable during his brief cameo appearance.
Having admitted he was “not fully fit,” according to MARCA.com, after Friday’s scoreless draw at home to Colombia, it was anyone’s guess whether he’d turn up in Quito at all. But despite a niggling hamstring injury that had limited him to only 157 minutes during the last six weeks of the club season with Barcelona, he replaced Aguero on the hour mark for his final performance before going on summer holidays.
No doubt Sabella will be hoping he gets his rest and he’ll be crossing his fingers the coaches at Barcelona do a better job man-managing his talisman next season as well.
That Messi has played far too much football in recent seasons is obvious—and manifests in his stress injury—and if Argentina are going to realize their potential at the World Cup, they’ll need him to be fresh and fit following the end of the 2013-14 campaign.
Messi may be the key to their World Cup hopes, but it is Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova who has in his hand the power to turn it.