Messi trumps new-look Brazil
Leo Messi scored the only goal, beating Brazil for the first time at the senior level
Brazil played with only four players who were at the World Cup last summer
The Brazilians had reasons to be pleased despite conceding in injury time
Lionel Messi can chalk off another objective achieved in his young but already extraordinary career. His glorious goal in stoppage time Wednesday gave Argentina a 1-0 victory over Brazil in Doha, Qatar, his first win against the Seleção at the senior level.
Losing by the only goal was a little hard on Brazil, which, until the 91st minute, probably had more to be pleased about than Argentina. In truth, the Brazilians were probably due some bad luck -- this was the first time they conceded a goal under new coach Mano Menezes, but only because officiating errors ruled out legitimate strikes by Iran and the Ukraine last month.
This, of course, is a new Brazil side. Only four members of Wednesday's squad went to the recent World Cup, compared to eight in Argentina's lineup. Since taking over at the end of July, Menezes has been given a mandate to rebuild -- a task that Argentina's Sergio Batista now has in front of him.
This was Batista's first game in permanent charge -- he had been appointed as a caretaker coach following the World Cup -- and the squad was named while his status was still temporary. With his job at stake, Batista has understandably played it safe, especially with the defense. He acknowledges, though, that Argentina needs to discover some new defenders. The fullbacks on show in Doha, Javier Zanetti and Gabriel Heinze, will surely not be around in 2014. Center backs Nicolas Pareja and Nicolas Burdisso only played because of injuries to more senior players, but neither they nor the players they replaced are likely bets for the next World Cup.
Menezes, meanwhile, has already reconstructed the Brazil defense, replacing the old center back firm of Lucio and Juan with the excellent Thiago Silva, whose sense of covering was once more a feature against Argentina, and David Luiz of Benfica, who is yet to inspire the same confidence. Luiz looked shaky against Iran and the Ukraine, and Menezes must have been concerned at the prospect of having him come up against Messi in full flow Wednesday. But until that late goal, Brazil's coach had reason to be happy with the way things had gone.
That cause for optimism was due in large part to the performance of his midfield trio, with Lucas holding, Ramires to the right and Elias to the left. Without the ball, the three players were aggressive, snapping into tackles and interrupting the circuit of passing that is so important to Argentina's game. With the ball, they were quick to pass, opening up the field and giving a platform for Brazil's attacks, either feeding the forward breaks of right back Daniel Alves or giving swift supply to the front three. On his recall to the national team, Ronaldinho could not complain about the service he received.
Ronaldinho, though, might be entitled to grumble about the options in front of him. In his previous games, Menezes had gone with a 4-2-3-1 system, with Alexandre Pato operating very effectively as the striker. But with Pato sidelined by a hamstring injury Wednesday, the only player in the squad with the characteristics of a center forward was Andre, recently sold from Santos to Dynamo Kiev and still in the process of adapting to European football. Not trusted to start, he was introduced for only the last 20 minutes, by which time Ronaldinho had already left the field.
Without a penalty area specialist in the team, someone proficient in receiving the ball with back to goal, it was not easy for Ronaldinho to generate the play, and he had his biggest impact on his free kicks. Question remain about whether he has a long-term international future, but if Paulo Henrique Ganso of Santos makes a successful recovery from his knee injury, it is doubtful that the Milan veteran will be Brazil's first choice.
In front of Ronaldinho was the duo of Robinho and Neymar, sinuous runners with the ball who caused occasional alarms in the Argentine defense. Both, though, are far too keen to go to the ground in an attempt to win free kicks. It is tiresome and overdone, and it carries with it the risk of the boy who cried wolf. Their dives may exhaust the patience of the referee to the extent that he is reluctant to blow the whistle even when the foul is blatant. There is a lesson for the Brazilian pair in the goal that decided the game.
For Argentina, there were signs in the first half of an interesting partnership between Messi and Javier Pastore, the playmaker in such fine form for Palermo. This was not so clear after the break because, in an attempt to balance out the midfield, Pastore dropped deeper. Batista found another partner for Messi. At halftime, he withdrew center forward Gonzalo Higuain and introduced Ezequiel Lavezzi, the tricky Napoli striker, who was deployed wide on the right.
It was an attempt to partially recreate the structure that has proved so successful for Messi at Barcelona, where Alves is a teammate rather than an adversary. The Brazilian fullback bombs down the flank, forcing the opposition to defend the entire width of the pitch and creating space for Messi to dart in-field. Argentina lacks this kind of attacking fullback, but Lavezzi performed a similar function. Brazil left back Andre Santos was forced out wide to take care of him, making it harder for Brazil to crowd men around Messi.
Argentina had to wait until stoppage time for the change to pay dividends, but when it did, it won the match. Messi had a run at the defense, Luiz, perhaps preoccupied by the threat of Lavezzi, allowed Messi to cut across onto his favored left foot, and Brazil keeper Victor at last conceded his first international goal.
Messi could have looked for contact and gone to the ground on the edge of the area -- it is a distinct possibility that Robinho and Neymar would have done so in the same situation. But one on one with the defender and trusting his own ability, his only thought was to keep going and shoot. He was rewarded with the winning goal. But if the 18-year-old Neymar was watching and learning, then Brazil's defeat today can pave the way for victories tomorrow.
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