Saturday, April 13, 2024

No Lionel Messi, no problem for Argentina: Lionel Scaloni focuses on the future as Copa America approaches

Philadelphia, PA. — Replacing a legend is impossible, so sometimes it’s best to not even try. That’s what makes Argentina such a dangerous team even when Lionel Messi isn’t available, like on Friday night in Philadelphia. Argentina were still able to dispatch El Salvador 3-0 with different scorers hitting the back of the net each time. There may have only been around 15,000 on hand for the match but La Albiceleste faithful made themselves heard in the stadium, cheering on their team.

“Now that Leo [Messi] is not here with us, we have to be a team more than ever because there is no player to replace him. It’s the truth,” Lionel Scaloni said leading into the match. 

While too much can’t be gleaned from a match against El Salvador where Argentina were the dominant force maintaining 79% of possession, a few things are notable. This team has depth and confidence and if Angel Di Maria needs to be the focal point of the attack, he won’t shy away from that spotlight. Collecting his 27th assist for his country, Di Maria has now surpassed Diego Maradona for second all-time in assists for Argentina, now only trailing Messi in the creative ranks.

Usually the sidekick instead of the focal point, it’s easy to forget Di Maria’s greatness but it was on display Friday. Di Maria took 129 touches, while creating three chances, putting three shots on target, and assisting Cristian Romero’s opening goal.

In matches like this, where the first goal is the hardest to score against a conservative, defensive opposition, being able to rely on an excellent set play delivery to kick things off on the right foot goes a long way. 

There are a few reasons why Argentina is the number one team in the world currently and while Messi is one of them, youth development and taking matches against the world’s 81st-best team just as seriously as they would against the second best team in the world are also part of the equation.

“We played a great game. We continue to grow, these are the last matches for Copa América and we continue with the same motivation and the same desire to put the national team at the top,” Romero said following the match.

That motivation was clear in their play, and at the end of the day, the biggest question from the game is why didn’t Argentina score more goals. Taking 24 shots and putting 14 on target, it came down to a heroic effort by El Salvador’s goalkeeper Mario Gonzalez to keep the match from truly getting out of hand, which shows just how dangerous Argentina can be. El Salvador did everything right defensively and even without Messi, Argentina scored three goals.

In midfield, Enzo Fernandez is finally settling in for Chelsea and it’s also paying dividends for Argentina with his late runs into the box leading to another goal for Argentina and Scaloni also had the flexibility to do weird things like use Nicolas Gonzalez as a left back to gain more of an advantage in possession while also getting youth like Alejandro Garnacho and Valentin Barco experience for the senior squad.

“There is no shortage of players for the Copa América, there are plenty of them. There are three fewer players than in the World Cup, so the list is going to be a nice problem,” Scaloni said to TyC Sports following the match. “But as always, we will think about the good of the team, about what is needed. But football is changing, between now and May many things can happen. There may be poor form or other players who are improving, so we do not rule out anything,” 

Being able to bring along youth while also having Argentina’s current generation of stars in place is what will keep La Albiceleste at the top of the FIFA rankings. Other teams like England may be closing in on having similar depth to Argentina but the mentality that Scaloni has instilled in the squad can be felt from top to bottom. With or without Messi, the togetherness of the squad can be felt and will continue to carry them forward.

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