EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There may have been no goals when Argentina met Ecuador in Friday’s friendly at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, but both coaches will have gained some valuable insights in their preparation for the 2014 World Cup.
Here are five things that emerged from the contest.
Yes, Argentina Miss Messi
After a lackluster first half, Argentina improved after the break but still lacked the killer touch to get the breakthrough against Ecuador, despite having plenty of possession. As much as the failings of those on the pitch, attention of course was drawn to a man notable by his absence. A sign in the crowd reading “Messi, get well,” reflected not only the feelings of the near 50,000 in attendance but particularly those in the Argentina setup. Messi’s hamstring tear was the latest in a long line of recent muscular injuries and must lead to a fear that the Barcelona man either won’t be at the World Cup, or won’t be at his previous best.
“Messi is the best player in the world and any team will notice the difference without a player like that,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella said afterward. “When Messi is not there, the other players feel that, but they also have to be strong to compensate.”
Without Messi, Argentina remain a very good team, and better than they showed -- with Sergio Aguero starting on the bench -- on Friday. With him, though, they are a side that no team in the world will want to face next summer.
Jefferson Montero Can Shine In Brazil And Beyond
While Argentina were missing their star, but the man who could be a difference maker for Ecuador at the World Cup came to the fore in New Jersey. Ecuador rely heavily on pushing their two wingers high up the pitch and, while it is Antonio Valencia who has the bigger international name, it is the player on the opposite flank, Jefferson Montero, who posed the biggest threat to Argentina, especially in the first half. The 24-year-old’s pace and trickery is likely to cause defenses plenty of problems in Brazil. While the consistency of his end product could improve, he provided one intelligent cross that should have led to Valencia putting Ecuador in front. Montero was linked to West Ham in the summer, and there should be a number of clubs in the Premier League and the rest of Europe on the phone to the left-winger’s Mexican club Morelia.
Pablo Zabaleta An Underrated Key
He is a player that rarely grabs headlines, but Pablo Zabaleta has become increasingly respected at Manchester City for his consistency both defensively and going forward. His importance to Argentina was shown in his absence for much of the match against Ecuador. Facundo Roncaglia was given a torrid time by Montero early on and, while he was left exposed by Argentina’s tactics, he did not stand up well to the winger’s threat. After Montero sped past him inside and out time and again, the Fiorentina defender was eventually booked for being forced to take him down by legal means. Zabaleta looked far more secure when coming on and his stability and calming influence will be vital in a sometimes brittle back four.
It is hard to comprehend the blow that Ecuador were struck when one of the country’s most recognizable footballers and a key part of the national team, Christian “Chucho” Benitez tragically passed away in July. His death could provide a powerful unifying factor for Ecuador going into the World Cup, but coach Reinaldo Rueda still has to deal with the best way to replace the former forward. Against Argentina, Enner Valencia started and linked up nicely a couple of times with main striker Felipe Caciedo. The answer, though, could lie in what Rueda did for the last half hour when he switched Antonio Valencia inside into a No. 10 role. The Manchester United winger played a couple of neat passes as he provided a better link between midfield and up front and he also offers more defensive protection for the two deep-lying midfielders. Rueda has experimented with that tactic in World Cup qualifying and it may be one that proves wise to revisit on the road to the World Cup.
Argentina Need To Get The Balance Right
Argentina are blessed with an array of attacking talent that currently no side in the world can match. With the likes of Aguero, Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria, Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Erik Lamela and Ricky Alvarez at his disposal, Sabella has some tough selection choices. Given the relative paucity of options at the other end of the pitch, Sabella appears to have adopted the notion that Argentina should play to their strengths. This tactic has its limits, though. Starting with a front three against Ecuador and Di Maria in a midfield trio, Ecuador were repeatedly allowed a clear run at the Albiceleste’s back four. Ecuador should have punished them and, if Argentina are that open in the World Cup, better teams will.