2 Final Chances? Martino's Argentina Job on Line at Copa America and Olympics

Daniel Edwards@@DanEdwardsGoalFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2016

FILE - In this March 29, 2016, file photo, Argentina's coach Gerardo Martino gives instructions to his players during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Bolivia in Cordoba, Argentina.(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

It has been 12 years since a Copa America and Olympic Games took place in the same year. In 2004, Argentina grabbed a gold medal in Athens and finished runners-up in the South American competition. It is not overly pessimistic to believe a similar result is necessary to keep Gerardo Martino in the hot seat. 

"If you do not win the Copa, you cannot come out untouched," he admitted to La Nacion shortly after the team touched down on U.S. soil. "It happened to us last year and it was a massacre.

"Why is it going to be different now? In a World Cup, you play seven matches. In a Copa America, six. These players have played 13 matches but who is going to take notice of that, nobody sees the road you take to the two finals you then went on to lose."

That is a harsh evaluation but accurate nonetheless. After two failed attempts at silverware, the expectations are sky-high on Argentina and their coach in particular.

Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press

The period between World Cups is always a fraught moment for Argentina coaches. Since 2004, no man has managed to see the nation through from one tournament to the next. Marcelo Bielsa, who delivered Olympic gold in Greece, was the last man to take Argentina a full cycle, from the end of 1998 to the 2002 World Cup and beyond.

While Martino still has some breathing space in the job, there is no doubt he faces a crucial winter to deliver results. On Monday, his team kicks off its Copa campaign against Chile, the same opponents that held a lacklustre Argentina to a draw in Santiago last year and made the difference from the penalty spot to claim their first title.

In the intervening year, the Albiceleste have made a spluttering start to the World Cup qualifiers. Three consecutive victories have helped drag the team back into contention for Russia 2018 after a painful home defeat to Ecuador and two underwhelming draws.

Another failure to win silverware in 2016 would stretch the senior side's trophy drought to 25 years by the time the next World Cup comes around, and a disappointing result at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro would further calls to bring a new face onto the bench as the qualifying tournament enters its decisive stages. 

There are mitigating factors for Martino's less-than-stellar record as coach. The former Barcelona man took over at a time when the Argentine Football Association (AFA) was in a state of inertia following the death of long-time caudillo Julio Grondona in 2014 after 35 unbroken years in the seat of power. 

What has followed in the AFA's Buenos Aires headquarters has taken on the appearance of pure farce, with endless power struggles, botched elections, constant resignations of key officials and, to cap it all, the intervention of the body ordered just days before the start of the Copa. That institutional background would make anyone's job a challenge.

As well as the power struggle behind the curtain, it cannot be denied that Martino has had rotten luck. The coach has had the luxury of calling up Ezequiel Garay, Argentina's best defender, precious few times as the Zenit Saint Petersburg man has suffered terribly with injury over the last two years.

Lionel Messi was also absent for the Albiceleste's first four World Cup qualifiers in 2015 after suffering a knee problem for Barcelona against Las Palmas. If that were not enough, Sergio Aguero added his name to the casualty list just minutes into that fateful game against Ecuador. For the Copa, Martino will be without Pablo Zabaleta, Garay and Lucas Biglia, while Messi was forced to fly to Spain to answer tax-evasion charges four days before the game against Chile, per El Pais.

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

It is far from ideal preparation, but the trainer's favoured new recruits, such as Erik Lamela, Ramiro Funes Mori and Paulo Dybala, have helped minimise the damage caused by those big absences over his tenure.

Even taking into consideration those difficulties, however, the coach has thus far failed to reach the standards expected of a team with attacking talent unmatched in international football. Ever since arriving at the team in 2014, he has preached the sanctity of his "idea," explaining away several poor displays with the assurance that the plan he has for the side outweighs anything as prosaic as a result. 

But what is Martino's idea? To the casual observer, Argentina appear a budget Barcelona, attempting to keep possession at all costs without the frantic pressing and inventiveness in the final third that makes the Catalans such a potent outfit. Messi, meanwhile, is posted out on the right wing, but more often than not, he is obliged to track back to the centre circle and beyond to look for the ball, robbing the Albiceleste of their most dangerous attacking outlet.

It is a serious failing in the Argentina team's makeup, and one Martino has shown little indication of being able to solve. 

Back in 2004, Bielsa was also fiercely questioned going into that packed winter after the abject failure of the 2002 World Cup. He responded in typically bullish fashion before finally resigning toward the end of the year. Argentina were without many of their best players in that year's Copa America, with the likes of Pablo Aimar, Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega, Juan Pablo Sorin and Juan Sebastian Veron all missing. 

RICARDO MAZALAN/Associated Press

An inexperienced side featuring such future nonentities as Mauro Rosales, Luciano Figueroa and Facundo Quiroga marched unbeaten into the final, where only an equaliser from Adriano in the dying seconds robbed them of the win. Brazil, perhaps inevitably, went on to win the trophy in the shootout, but Bielsa had revenge a month later, when an inspired 20-year-old Carlos Tevez led his colleagues to Olympic gold.

By all objective measures, Argentina—even with those sensitive injury absences—have a far better side than that of 12 years ago. That only serves to increase pressure, and the likes of Dybala, Angel Correa and Geronimo Rulli will feel the same weight of expectation in August when they fight for a third Albiceleste win in the last four games at Rio.

A Copa win and strong Olympic performance, or vice versa, as achieved by El Loco in 2004, will be the minimum conditions for Martino to continue untouched in his post for 2018 and beyond—or else, as he pointed out, a "massacre" could be awaiting when he returns to Argentine soil.

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