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Angel Correa Takes Up Messi's Mantle as Argentina Get Olympic Bid Back on Track

Daniel Edwards@@DanEdwardsGoalFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2016

Argentina's Angel Correa, right, celebrates with teammate Argentina's Lautaro Giannetti after scoring his team's first goal during a group D match of the men' s Olympic football tournament between Argentina and Algeria at the Rio Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday Aug. 7, 2016. At left is Argentina's coach Julio Olarticoechea.(AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Leo Correa/Associated Press

After enduring a disappointing start to their men's football campaign, the Argentina team needed a big result in their second match. The South American giants still have plenty to work on, but if Angel Correa stays fit and at his blistering best, they cannot be ruled out in the medal fight. 

It is hard to imagine worse preparations for a major tournament than those of Julio Olarticoechea's team. The 1986 World Cup winner indeed only found out he would be taking the reins in the Olympics halfway through July, thanks to Gerardo Martino's resignation.

Since then El Vasco has fought against clubs' stubborn reluctance to release their players at a time when the Argentine Football Association (AFA) is in a torrid state. He saw key players such as Paulo Dybala, Luciano Vietto, Matias Kranevitter, Leandro Paredes and Ramiro Funes Mori, to name just a handful, turn down the national call on their clubs' behest, and just days before the close of squad selections had less than 10 players at his disposal.

That chaotic start to the Olympic campaign is keenly felt in the Argentina ranks. The team may have won out 2-1 against Algeria in the Estadio Joao Havelange on Sunday, but the performance was once again far from convincing. Perhaps inevitably for a team still getting to know each other, any sense of collective fluidity and team play was almost imperceptible. 

As they have for many years at youth level, the Albiceleste appear to be relying on their dazzling individual talents shining through and showing them the way forward in Brazil. Luckily, Atletico Madrid forward Correa looks ready and willing to take that mantle and live up to the reputation of a shirt that carries infinite weight. 

Leo Correa/Associated Press

The No. 10 belonged to Lionel Messi before the Barcelona wizard announced his international retirement following another final disappointment in June's Copa America. Previously it had been worn by Juan Roman Riquelme, Ariel Ortega and, most famously, the great Diego Maradona. The number carries a mystique and importance like no other, but Correa has the talent and the attitude to bear the pressure and lead the attack. 

Having folded 2-0 to Portugal in Wednesday's curtain-raiser, Argentina lined up in a menacing manner as they sought to make amends. Correa joined Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Pavon in a creative trident behind sole centre-forward Jonathan Calleri. 

While the Central and Boca men were tasked with generating play from deep, the 21-year-old Rosario native pushed further forward to play off Calleri as a second striker. But there was little sign of the trio's obvious talent in a torrid first half against Argentina. 

Algeria pushed across the pitch, stifling their more illustrious opponents long before the ball made it to the dangermen. Correa and Co. were forced to feed off scraps, while the North Africans created by far the clearer chances. Fortunately, in Geronimo Rulli, Olarticoechea can count on the talents of one of the most talented goalkeepers in the entire competition. 

Unbowed by his gaffe in allowing Portugal to net a second, the Real Sociedad man stood tall throughout the match to cover a worryingly shaky defence. Even when captain Victor Cuesta was sent off in the dying seconds of the first half, Rulli remained a rock. 

Leo Correa/Associated Press

Ten-man Argentina paradoxically came out for the second 45 minutes a better side despite the numerical disadvantage. Algeria started to loose some of their defensive shape in their zeal to grab a winner, and it proved their undoing. Just seconds after the restart, Correa latched on to Calleri's header and converted with a perfect finish to put his team ahead. 

Algeria then hit back with Sofiane Bendebka's equaliser, but once the numbers were evened out following Ayoub Abdellaoui's second yellow, only one winner looked likely. Calleri spurned a glorious opportunity from close range before redeeming himself with a goal to earn Argentina their first points of the competition. 

The provider? None other than the Albiceleste's first goalscorer, Correa, who fed the striker with an incisive pass to prove there is far more to his game than just hitting the back of the net. 

Gold-medal winners in 2004 and 2008, there are always heavy expectations on the Argentina team going into the Olympic Games. After losing to Portugal, those hopes looked misplaced; perhaps the disastrous build-up to the tournament had left the side shorn of the time and practice needed to form a coherent unit, in the Games where several teams have already made a strong case for medal consideration. 

But as always, the immense pride and heart of the Albiceleste team and their phenomenal individual talents go a long way to hide those collective limitations. Correa may not be Messi or Maradona, but the No. 10 showed against Algeria he has the skills to take centre stage in Rio. 

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