Argentina went top of South America’s World Cup qualifying table, but almost certainly only for a few hours. Brazil will surely overtake them on Friday night, with a draw at home to Venezuela enough to get the job done. And Argentina have some tricky games ahead: away to Peru on Tuesday, followed by meetings with Uruguay and Brazil in the next two rounds. Lionel Messi & Co., then, will see Thursday’s 1-1 draw at home to Paraguay as two points lost.
An absorbing and controversial match does extend their unbeaten run to 10 games and the clash with Paraguay also highlighted some of the strengths and weaknesses of Lionel Scaloni’s side.
Argentina found themselves a goal down around the 20-minute mark after a moment that exposed their deepest flaw: a lack of defensive pace and quality. This is further emphasised by the characteristics of Leandro Paredes, the anchorman in the midfield trio. His skill set is much more suited to setting up the play than to protecting the centre-backs. It always seemed likely that the battle between Miguel Almiron and the Argentina defence would be interesting, and when Almiron picked up possession close to the left touchline, he was in no doubt as to what he wanted to do. He made a diagonal beeline toward the heart of the defence. Paredes was not protecting the space, and Almiron won his duel against centre-back Lucas Martinez Quarta, who, off balance, caught Almiron with a trailing leg. Angel Romero slotted home the penalty and, just as in the previous round away to Bolivia, Argentina were a goal down.
It was, though, almost the last that was seen of the Paraguay attack. Their coach, Eduardo Berizzo, tried to force his men forward. He had selected a defensive line of four centre-backs, but that did not mean he wanted to sit deep. His aim was to defend on the front foot, proactively, breaking up Argentina’s moves far from goal.
For a while it worked, though Paraguay were unable to link their aggressive defence with aggressive attack. Indeed, they might have been too aggressive for their own good. Romero clattered into Argentina midfielder Exequiel Palacios, who was forced to leave the field before half an hour had passed. On came Giovani Lo Celso, whose left foot and forward movement immediately gave a crisper feel to Argentina’s passing. They began to pull the Paraguay defence this way and that, and before long they were level. Lo Celso took a corner from the left. Nico Gonzalez had come into the team at the last moment, improvised as a left back when Nico Tagliafico proved unfit, and his run from deep was not picked up. He rose above the Paraguay defence to head home and level the scoreline.
The second half, then, was set up for Argentina to turn the screw. This was a match, though, that threw up evidence for the inevitable physical decline of Messi. Almost halfway into his 34th year, he has lost some of the acceleration of old. He is still capable of brilliance; there were some fine moments in this match. But as he turns and spins he now finds it harder to burst away from his markers, and there were many times against Paraguay when he lost possession. It is now more important than ever that he dovetails well with those around him.
This time there was little sign of the promising partnership he displayed last month with Sevilla winger Lucas Ocampos, who had a disappointing game and gave way on the hour to the recall of Angel Di Maria. Just before the change it seemed that Messi had given Argentina the lead — a consequence of an exchange with Lo Celso, who was his most effective partner on the night.
The move highlighted Argentina at their best, with patient possession followed by a sudden change of rhythm and a mass arrival in the opposing box. Paredes played the key ball, opening out the field with a long pass to Gonzalez down the left. He squared inside for Lo Celso, whose clever pullback was met by Messi with a side-foot shot that beat the keeper diving to his right.
It did not count because VAR did its worst. After viewing the evidence, Brazilian referee Raphael Claus decided that right at the start of the move there had been a foul by Gonzalez on Romero. The foul probably existed. But it took place some 30 seconds before the goal was scored, and afterward Argentina moved the ball back as well as forward, making it a stretch to see the foul as taking place in the attacking phase. Many will argue — the Argentina coaching staff loudly among them — that this was an overofficious and pernickety use of technology.
Argentina never really recovered their equilibrium. Messi seemed especially frantic, though there was one wonderfully struck free kick, which keeper Anthony Silva just managed to tip onto and over the bar as Paraguay held on for the draw.
Paraguay also have something to regret. In stoppage time, Almiron spent too long leaving the field when he was being substituted, and picked up a yellow card that rules him out of Tuesday’s home game against Bolivia — a match when he would surely have had more chances to launch his attacking surges, such as the one which ended up helping Paraguay secure a draw in Buenos Aires.