Friday, March 25, 2011

Scouting Report: Argentina

By Clemente Lisi – After having their last friendly cancelled due to unrest in Egypt, the United States faces Argentina on Saturday at the New Meadowlands. This is the first time in 2011 we’ll see a first-choice US squad, facing off against a World power they last played in August of 2008.

In that game against the then-No. 1 ranked Argentina, Tim Howard solidified his role as the National Team’s starting goalkeeper ahead of World Cup Qualifying. Howard made seven saves at Giants Stadium that night in a 0-0 draw.

Three years later, the Albicelestes are no longer ranked #1 but remain one of the strongest teams in the World. For the United States, the game at the New Meadowlands Stadium, which replaced the now-demolished Giants Stadium, is coach Bob Bradley’s first real chance this year to test his regular starters after using a predominantly MLS-based squad in a January friendly against Chile that ended 1-1.

The USA will need to repeat the feat of 2008 if it hopes to get past a star-studded Argentine squad led by 2010 FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi. In addition to the 23-year-old Messi, Argentina coach Sergio Batista has also called up defender Javier Zanetti and midfielder Esteban Cambiasso (both Champions League winners with Inter Milan last season) and young strikers Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli) and Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid). Serie A fans will recognize most of Batista’s 24-man roster since it includes seven players who are based with Italian clubs, including Catania goalkeeper Mariano Andujar and Roma defender Nicolas Burdisso.

“These games are always vital for us,” Batista said of the US match. “They help us to better prepare for the games that really count. I am very happy with the way the team is progressing and I continue to he hopeful as we come closer to the Copa America.”

The one notable absentee is Carlos Tevez, who was also left off the squad in last month’s friendly against Portugal. The official line is that Tevez is nursing a minor injury, but Argentine FA officials have been quoted saying the exclusion stems from Tevez’s decision last November to pull out of camp ahead of a friendly versus Brazil after claiming to be injured. Four days later, a healthy-looking Tevez scored twice for Manchester City against Fulham in a Premier League game.

Batista, who replaced Diego Maradona following last summer’s World Cup, will start Messi. He is also likely to play veterans Zanetti and Cambiasso - regulars Maradona snubbed when he put together his World Cup roster - along with a slew of young players. The midfield is likely to feature Javier Mascherano in the middle alongside Javier Pastore and Cambiasso. Up front, Messi will be free to roam up field in a quest to emulate the form he has displayed at Barcelona, not Argentina, over the past few years. On attack, Lavezzi and Di Maria form a great tandem. Lavezzi’s speed on the flanks and Di Maria’s finishing could by that one-two punch that gets Argentina’s attack going.

Batista, a former midfielder who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, has tried to distinguish himself from his former teammate Maradona since he was appointed interim coach after the World Cup. While Maradona refused to go away quietly (even taking public jabs at Batista), the new Argentina coach was busy experimenting with new lineups. Over the past few weeks alone, he has looked at over 40 players. Two weeks ago, a second-string Argentina made up of domestic-based players downed Venezuela 4-1. None of those players are on the roster that will face the USA.

Batista arrived in the New York-area on Tuesday, a day before his players, and has spent the past three days in his hotel room overlooking the Manhattan skyline studying lineups with his assistants. Batista’s players also trained Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls Under-18 team in preparation for the game.

Under Batista, the two-time World Cup champions – fourth in the latest FIFA rankings - have gone all-out to play an entertaining brand of soccer, while making sure the defense doesn’t crumble, something that crippled Maradona’s side in South Africa. Germany eliminated Argentina 4-0 in the quarterfinals, a sign to Batista that he needs to shore up the back line before the Copa America, which Argentina will host in July.

“Barcelona is always a model to follow,” Batista said last month of the style employed by Messi’s club side.

Batista’s likes to use a 4-3-3 formation that combines quick ball movement in the center of the field with short, triangle pattern passing. Argentina also likes to maintain possession for long stretches, although the physically fit Americans should be able to keep up with their opponents for the duration of the match.

Last month, Messi scored the game-winner on a penalty kick in the 90th minute in a 2-1 victory over Portugal in Geneva, Switzerland. The February 9th friendly looked to be headed to a draw when Fabio Coentrao fouled Pastore in the penalty box and Messi converted from the spot. In that game, Messi, who assisted on the first goal, was a more integral part of the Argentine attack compared to the World Cup, where Maradona had used him in a more withdrawn play maker role that resulted in no goals over five games.

“I’ve played in the same position for Barcelona,” Messi said at a news conference after the Portugal match. “I’ve been very comfortable because I get more of the ball.”

How the USA responds to Messi will be a barometer of how the National Team fares against top-caliber talent. Bradley will have his best players with him, including five who played in every minute at the World Cup: Howard, defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit, and midfielders Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. Youngsters like Juan Agudelo could get the chance to pair up with Donovan for the first time should Bradley decide to go that route.

“This is an important opportunity to get our core group together along with some relatively newer faces as we consider the roster decisions for the Gold Cup this summer,” said Bradley, who held training camp this week in Cary, NC.

The game is expected to be close to a sellout, with some 60,000 tickets sold. The National Team will make its second appearance at New Meadowlands Stadium, having lost 2-0 Brazil last August before 77,223 fans in the first game after the World Cup.

“Argentina continues to be one of the most talented teams in the world, and we are excited to have the opportunity to compete against them,” Bradley said. “When you talk about the best players around the globe, the Argentines certainly contribute a lot of names to that list.”

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