Round of 16 previewTuesday, July 1, 2014
Argentina look to find its shooting boots
Female favourite Lavezzi is in doubt for replacing Agüero
Argentina face Switzerland today. Ezequiel Lavezzi, who seemed to be the favourite for being fielded instead of injured Sergio Agüero, is in doubt as coach Alejandro Sabella put Maxi Rodríguez to the test in yesterday’s practice.
BELO HORIZONTE — Having relied on Lionel Messi for most of its goals so far at this World Cup, Argentina is planning to find new ways of scoring in its second-round match against Switzerland today.
Messi carried Argentina through the group stage, scoring four of its goals. The other two came from an own goal and left back Marcos Rojo.
With Sergio Agüero missing today’s match because of a left thigh injury, the Group F winners are looking to Ezequiel Lavezzi, who is considered a sex symbol for many Argentine women, to step in — a challenge that assistant coach Claudio Gugnali said the Paris Saint-Germain forward is ready for.
“He’s a very powerful player and is in a great moment,” Gugnali said. “He finished his club season very well. He has been asking to be on the pitch since he came (to Brazil). I don’t have any doubts that he will know how to take advantage of his opportunities.”
Lavezzi usually attacks down the wings, but also drops back to work in partnership with Argentina’s midfielders. The team will have to adapt its tactical formation a bit if Lavezzi starts.
But Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella made a surprising move in yesterday’s training session when he fielded Maximiliano Rodríguez as right midfielder replacing Lavezzi. Rodríquez usually plays as midfielder, suggesting Sabella is considering a more defensive starting line-up.
Argentina is also wary of Switzerland’s attack and will have to shore up its shaky defence to deal with threats that include winger Xherdan Shaqiri, who scored a hat trick against Honduras in the final Group E match.
Switzerland also beat Ecuador in the group stage, but was overrun by France in a 5-2 defeat. For Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, the team’s qualification for the second round meant postponing his possible retirement. The German veteran, a two-time Champions League winner as a coach, has said this tournament will be his last.
Goalkeeper Diego Benaglio knows that beating Argentina will demand complete concentration by his teammates. “We must remain highly focused, very disciplined, maintain our compactness, act extremely carefully,” Benaglio said. “The defensive work doesn’t begin with the defenders. Our attacker will be the first defender.”
Argentina is not taking anything for granted and won’t expect to roll over Switzerland in Sao Paulo.
“Everybody said we would score loads of goals in the group stage and it’s clear that didn’t happen,” midfielder Maxi Rodríguez said. “Our mentality is always the same: at a World Cup you have to be focused 100 percent of the time. It’s true that big teams are still left on the way, but if you’re not concentrated any team can beat you.”
With two World Cup matches already decided in shootouts, Argentina is practicing penalties ahead of today’s match.
Sabella said yesterday that the Argentines have been shooting spot kicks “in an informal way,” though he added that doing it in practice is very different from doing it in front of tens of thousands of spectators with the team’s World Cup survival at stake.
Sabella said those matches showed that mental strength and character are crucial to advancing in the World Cup, adding that “a gram of brains weighs more than a kilogram of muscle.”
He’s got a good example of that in Messi, the diminutive forward who’s been carrying the team on his shoulders in Brazil.
Messi has scored four of Argentina’s six goals, including an injury-time winner in the second match against Iran.
“Messi is playing a great World Cup,” Sabella said. “Obviously he is a decisive player for us.”
Apart from Messi, though, Argentina lacked sparkle in its group-phase matches. Its defence was shaky against Nigeria and its attack faltered against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sabella said at times the team has become disjointed, pulled apart by the speed of its own attack.
“Sometimes we get stretched out because we have strikers who are very fast,” Sabella said. “I think in modern football it’s important that teams remain compact, that the distance between defenders and strikers is as short as possible, and that’s what we’re going to try to achieve.”
With a team that’s seen as front-heavy — with stars like Messi, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Angel Di María in the attack, but a relatively modest defence — Sabella also stressed the need to keep the team balanced. He reached for a basketball metaphor to make his point.
“If you watch an NBA game and one team is attacking the crowd is shouting “defence, defence, defence.” And with football it’s the same: attacking and defending and finding a balance,” Sabella said.