Pressure is on for Argentina
While Saturday night represents another step in the U.S.'s preparation for the Gold Cup, its opponent at New Meadowlands Stadium is looking ahead to a tournament it hasn't won since 1993. Argentina will host Copa America for the first time in 24 years, and it's under pressure to end a run of four wins in five tournaments by its fiercest rival, Brazil.
Since Diego Maradona's side was unceremoniously eliminated by Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals, Argentina's progress has been encouraging, though enthusiasm has been tempered by the friendly status of matches. Nevertheless, world champion Spain was a notable scalp in September, when Argentina won 4-1, as was a 1-0 victory over Brazil, thanks to a last-minute Lionel Messi goal, two months later. In February, Argentina defeated another high-profile opponent, Portugal, 2-1.
Overseeing the post-Maradona era is another veteran of the 1986 World Cup-winning side, Sergio Batista. In contrast to his predecessor, the 48-year-old has had a more conventional route to his country's top job, coaching Argentina's under-20s as well as the Olympic-winning squad in 2008. But the differences do not end there. Whereas Maradona was known for his controversial comments, Batista prefers a more diplomatic approach on hot-button topics, such as the continued absence of Carlos Tevez.
The Manchester City striker is currently injured but was not hurt when Batista named his squad. Though the official line is that the coach is keen to look at less-established forward options, there is a school of thought that Tevez is still being punished for missing the Brazil friendly, only to play in a Premier League game four days later.
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The president of the Argentina Football Association, Julio Grondona, who appointed Batista after a bitter divorce from Maradona, told the media last week that the issue was over, adding that he hoped "to goodness that Tevez is in the Copa America." However, opinions remain divided as to whether the 27-year-old will be part of the summer plans.
What is clearer is that the tournament is vitally important for Batista, who told the press this week that "many are waiting for me to make a mistake." International football journalist Joel Richards, who is based in Buenos Aires, said that the coach still has much to prove.
"If Argentina struggle in Copa America and especially if Brazil win the tournament again, it would be a disaster for him," said Richards. "Batista knows the group of players well having coached many of them previously, but the jury is still out on him. The style of play has been solid but not spectacular, and Messi is heavily depended upon."
Messi has been criticized in the past for underperforming in the colors of his national team, but the reigning World Player of the Year has shown signs of consistent form as the focal point of Argentina's attack under the new coach, scoring in three of the five internationals he has played since the World Cup.
The Barcelona star will be a major offensive threat against the U.S., particularly given that none of the five players -- Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Martin Palermo, Martin Demichelis and Gabriel Heinze -- who scored in South Africa will be involved. Furthermore, Diego Milito misses out through injury while Sergio Aguero, though fit, has been deemed surplus to requirements.
In fact, Batista's original roster for Saturday's game (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) featured just nine of the 23 which represented La Albiceleste at the World Cup. Whether by coincidence or not, 10 of the 19 gold medal winners from the 2008 Beijing games were called up.
Among those to watch for is Ezequiel Lavezzi, who Argentina fans will hope can replicate at the international level the goal-scoring and goal-making form he has shown this season for Napoli. Lavezzi has helped put Maradona's former team into the thick of the Serie A title race.
While Uruguayan Edinson Cavani has attracted many of the headlines for his goals (22 and counting), the numbers show that his fellow South American Lavezzi has been just as crucial to the hopes of the Naples outfit. With Lavezzi in the side this season, Napoli has averaged 1.8 goals per game. In the six matches he has missed, it has mustered just three.
Ever Banega will seek to pull the strings in midfield and is likely to be joined in the starting lineup by veterans Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso, both of whom were overlooked by Maradona last summer.
Though who is missing may attract almost as much attention as who makes the field Saturday night, Argentina remains a formidable opponent with a depth of talent available to Batista that would make most international coaches envious. Furthermore, fans should expect a positive result, one way or the other. Remarkably, since amassing six straight ties between June and September 2008 -- the first of which was a 0-0 result against the U.S. at the old Giants Stadium -- Argentina has recorded 24 wins, eight defeats and precisely zero draws.
Andrew Hush is an associate producer on ESPNSoccernet Press Pass, full episodes of which can be seen here. Follow the show at www.twitter.com/ESPNPressPass.
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