Soccer

Jack: Why Argentina are now favourites, but still vulnerable

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Kristian Jack, TSN.ca
6/25/2014 8:26:22 PM
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Day 14 in 100 words or less

We are told that over 90 per cent of the population is naturally right-footed. Brazil 2014 has only been alive for two weeks and it has already laughed in the faces of many trends and on Day 14, it added another one. A tournament that has seen left-footed geniuses like Arjen Robben and James Rodriguez rise above the rest, added two more left-footed playmakers to the list of stars at this World Cup on Wednesday. Xherdan Shaqiri, who patiently waited for his showcase to get out of Bayern Munich, netted a hat-trick, while Lionel Messi delivered a complete performance for the first time.

Argentina 3-2 Nigeria

Lionel Messi was very good at the World Cup in 2010, but he didn't score a goal and Argentina went home early. For the next four years, we were told he wasn't good at all in South Africa.

For the first two games in Brazil, Messi scored two brilliant goals that proved to be the difference. We were told he was finally delivering on the biggest stage. Except he wasn't. He was, in fact, average for long periods of the game and wasn't as good as he was in South Africa.

And then came game number three. Unlike Brazil, still sputtering along in third-gear, Argentina upped their game on Wednesday, delivering a far better performance than their previous efforts at this World Cup. This was helped, of course, by a complete performance from Messi. He scored early, dragging three men towards him, allowing space for Angel Di Maria to run into, before following up and smashing the ball into the roof of the net.

It was far from game over, though. Argentina have flaws, more of which we will look at soon. Nigeria fought back to 1-1 and then Messi delivered the best free kick of the World Cup so far, looping the ball over the wall and into the corner of the net. Four goals in three games. At 3-2, he was removed for a rest and it was a break he deserved.

Argentina were the real winners of the December draw; their group was perfect for them, full of close but winnable games and that theme continues for them going forward. A date with Switzerland follows and then, likely, Belgium, Ghana or USA in the quarterfinals and, possibly, Netherlands in the last four. All of their South American cousins are in the opposite half, as are Germany, should they win their group.

It is quite possible that Argentina will line up inside the Maracana on July 13 without being seriously tested by a legitimate contender at this World Cup. That gives them an opportunity to continue to roll, but will they be good enough by then to cover for their weaknesses?

The cohesion of their front three was a mild improvement from games one and two, though Sergio Aguero left the game injured and that might help them going forward because he and Gonzalo Higuain haven't been at their best alongside Messi. Although a concern, that isn't the biggest issue for Argentina.

Their back four are very unreliable, happy to play deep to stop any pace coming behind them. This, though, is an issue to be exploited by top teams. The midfield three of Fernando Gago, Javier Mascherano and Di Maria desperately need to connect with the front three for the system to work. Gago's movement created Messi's first goal in Brazil and Di Maria's combinations with Messi were much better on Wednesday. This means the midfield three push forward and leave space in behind.

On the first goal conceded, scored by Ahmed Musa, midfielder Michael Babatunde sprinted into space between the lines…



Once Musa got into the danger zone, the centre-backs had been split and he was one-on-one with the full back Pablo Zabaleta, before curling the ball into the net.



At 2-1, the same thing happened again in the second half. Look at the space in between the lines….



The ball is played into Emmanuel Emenike, both centre-backs are dragged towards him and Musa sprints into the space between the lines. It is an imperfect storm for Argentina's two greatest weaknesses



If we look at how they conceded their other goal in this tournament, again from open play, against Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is a familiar story. When the team has to defend, there is a tremendous pressure on seven players to defend properly. Once again, they didn't do that properly. Here, you can see a back four with the midfield three and, the eventual goalscorer Vedab Ibisevic, operating between the lines…



Ibisevic makes an intelligent run and, like Musa, allows his teammate to run into the space in between the lines, which forced a centre-back out once again….



Once he's in, he scores easily.



Argentina should be the favourites to win the World Cup at this stage. Their best player is on form and the draw has opened up for them but, when not in possession, they look like a broken team and one that could be exposed. It just might be later, rather than sooner, at this World Cup.

Bosnia-Herzegovina 3-1 Iran

Both teams saw their World Cups officially end in another excellent game in Brazil. Not much will be remembered from the game, except for another fine left-footed strike by Edin Dzeko, a man who clearly deserved to be a goal-scorer in this tournament after harshly having one ruled out for offside against Nigeria.

Switzerland 3-0 Honduras

Honduras achieved something quite remarkable as their World Cup ended. They beat Cameroon for being the worst team in this tournament with another poor performance. Switzerland, however, did exactly what they needed to do, winning a game by a margin that would have forced Ecuador to win by more than just a goal.

Xherdan Shaqiri was the star but he owes a toast to Josip Drmic, who was magnificent playing just ahead of him. Shaqiri's goals were exquisite, but Drmic's movement and vision contributed to two and the pair's relationship will delight Ottmar Hitzfeld as they head into their next game against Argentina. If any pair can exploit the space in between the lines, it might be these two. The great coach, who retires after this tournament, said he didn't even think it could have been his last game. Honduras will do that to you. Argentina will be a different foe, for sure, but what a glorious challenge it will be for the veteran leader.

France 0-0 Ecuador

Ecuador became the only South American team to not make the last 16 after a goalless draw in Rio. Goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez was excellent, captain Antonio Valencia was sent off and striker Enner Valencia was a menace once again. However, it seemed the moment they conceded the late winner to Switzerland that it would cost them qualification and so it proved the case for Reinaldo Rueda's side.

France, meanwhile, should have scored at least three but didn't get any. Didier Deschamps made a number of changes heading into the match and, much like Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia, it was tough to analyze much from a team already (virtually) through to the next round through two games. What we do know is France have a deep squad, with an in-form star striker, and will be big favourites against Nigeria. How they respond when they go behind in a game may be their biggest test going forward.

Man of the Day

Nominees

Lionel Messi – It feels right when one of the world's finest players performs like that at a World Cup.

Angel Di Maria – A player who is so important to their system, the Real Madrid man was much better today than in the past two matches.

Ahmed Musa – Two brilliantly taken goals made the game closer than some thought it would be.

Xherdan Shaqiri – It has been the tournament of left-footed wizards and the Bayern Munich man delivered when his country needed him most.

Alexander Dominguez – Many Ecuadorian players leave Brazil with their heads held high, including their goalkeeper who put on a clinic at the Maracana.

The winner…

Lionel Messi – Who else? Again...

What comes next?

USA vs. Germany and Portugal vs. Ghana (12pm et /9am pt), South Korea vs. Belgium and Algeria vs Russia (4pm et/1pm pt)

Burning question for tomorrow

Will Fabio Capello let go of the handbrake and allow his creative players to attempt to take his team into the next round?

Key stat of Day 14    

Lionel Messi scored in all three group games for Argentina. The first player to do that since Omar Corbatta in 1958.

Lionel Messi and Ogenyi Onazi (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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