As has been the case with previous matches, we've had Mundo Albiceleste readers attend Argentina games and send in their match reports.
For the Argentina vs. Sweden game, Mundo Albiceleste reader Fredrik attended the match and was kind enough to send in a detailed report along with pictures. On behalf of the Mundo Albiceleste staff, we would like to thank Fredrik for sending in his report!
Some personal reflections on Sweden 2-Argentina 3 and what needs to improve for Brazil 2014
Argentina’s most fanatically supported football club wear the colours of the Swedish flag, but Argentina have no fond memories of playing Sweden at national team level. Having played them only twice before the friendly on Wednesday night, they were eliminated in the first round of the 1934 World Cup and then suffered a shocking first round elimination in 2002, despite being pre-tournament favourites. While the below-strength Argentina team that travelled to Italy in 1934 made few marks on football history, the tremendous free-kick of Anders Svensson remains a painful memory. The 1-1 draw in Japan sealed the elimination of a team that under Marcelo Bielsa’s leadership had out-classed their South American opponents, including future world champions Brazil, in the notoriously difficult South American qualification campaign. No other South American team has been close to the record of 13 wins, 4 draws and just 1 loss achieved by Bielsa’s side.
Nobody from Argentina’s squad in 2002 was picked for the Sweden game, though Pablo Aimar, Diego Placente, Walter Samuel and the eternal Javier Zanetti remain active. Argentina’s nemesis from 2002 Svensson started in midfield for Sweden on Wednesday night, while current captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic appeared as a substitute in 2002 and current starting goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson was a non-playing squad member back then. Zlatan’s trophy-filled but tumultuous year at Lionel Messi’s FC Barcelona along with Sweden Manager Erik Hamrén’s controversial decision to favour Zlatan, Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo over Messi in his vote for FIFA Balon D’Or provided extra spice to a match that also served as the last preparation for the crucial World Cup qualifiers at the end of March.
The game was played on a cold night in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 50000 in the brand new Friends Arena in the Stockholm suburb of Solna. Perhaps not surprisingly given the weather conditions, this was only the third time that “Landslaget” played an international at home in February. Nevertheless, the new stadium provided a great venue and the Swedish winter was hardly noticeable. A packed house looked forward to the duel between former teammates Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored four goals against England when the new stadium was inaugarated in November, and Lionel Messi, recently named the best player in the world for the fourth year in a row.
Argentina dominated the first half, enjoying over 60% of the possession and creating numerous chances. Di Maria was lively going forward on the left flank while Messi dropped relatively deep to set up chances for Agüero and Higuain. Zabaleta was often left unmarked on the right flank but this was not exploited to the extent it might have been. Campagnaro at left full-back mainly focused on his defensive duties. Garay was the most solid in a frail defensive unit while Romero and Fernandez were unconvincing at Sweden’s first goal. Mascherano and Gago confirmed their excellent partnership as holding midfielders, dominating the midfield against an opposition that gave them plenty of time to manoeuvre.
Sabella’s fantastic four of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria and Agüero provide a tremendous threat against any team, let alone against a Swedish defence struggling to replace Olof Mellberg who vowed never to play for his country again after the team crashed out in the first round of Euro 2012. Higuain was given the first goal after just two minutes even though it was really an own goal by Mikael Lustig. After 18 minutes one of the best moves of the game led to Agüero scoring a beautifully taken goal to put Argentina 2-1 up, just after Sweden has equalized thought a Jonas Olsson header. Hamrén afterwards fumed at what he described as a “clear off-side goal”, but might be better advised to work on improving a defensive unit that is clearly dysfunctional. Higuain then scored what would prove to be a decisive fourth goal of the game after 22 minutes, finishing a 20-minute blitz from which Sweden never recovered.
There were several substitutions during the second half, notably that of Zlatan who was being rested for what was considered an important league game just two days later. Messi in contrast played the full 90 minutes and came very close to scoring with a beautiful chip. The Swedish goalkeeper Isaksson cleared the ball with a spectacular bicycle kick that was quickly a hit across various social media channels. Many observers, including Lionel Messi, felt the ball had crossed the line but referee choose not to award the goal. The low point of the game came when Swedish substitute Pontus Wernbloom, known for being a strong supporter of Real Madrid, brought down Lionel Messi. It is the view of the writer of this article that such tackles, with a substantial risk of causing a serious injury, have no place in an international friendly when being two goals down with less than 10 minutes left to play. To commemorate the famous goal of Svensson in 2002, Rasmus Elm scored an impressive free-kick right at the end where it seemed that Sergio Romero could do more. The final 2-3 result was flattering to Sweden but underlined the need for Argentina to improve their defense.
The defense definitely needs to improved. Sabella’s choice of grooming two young central defenders has been given plaudits, but despite the relative height of Fernandez and Garay they look extremely vulnerable at set pieces. The likes of Fabricio Coloccini, Nicolas Otamendi, Lisandro Lopez and Nicolas Burdisso are worth consideration but it is not immediately clear that they would improve on the current starters. While Zabaleta seems a certain choice to start at one of the full-back positions, the other remains a problem. It would be interesting to see more of Velez full-back Gino Peruzzi, who impressed against Brazil in the Copa Roca, was in the squad for the Sweden game but remained on the bench for the full 90 minutes.
Many Argentina supporters will remember that Doctor Carlos Salvador Bilardo, currently with the somewhat unclear role of General Manager since the resignation of Alfio Basile in October 2008, could not celebrate winning the 1986 World Cup after beating West Germany 3-2 in the Azteca Stadium. The reason was that this legendary team, captained by Diego Armando Maradona, had let in two goals from set pieces. One wonders if Alejandro Sabella was quietly also less keen to celebrate a victory where Argentina impressed going forward, but struggled to defend at set pieces. He must be aware that his defense is too vulnerable to be a serious contender against the likes of Brazil, Spain and Germany in Brazil next summer.
Sabella is clearly on the right track, but apart from sorting out the defense this Argentina supporter wishes he would consider changing at least one more thing before Brazil. Even though Lionel Messi had a fantastic year with the national team in 2012, it would be desirable for him not to drop as deep as he often does when playing in the 4-3-3 formation with Agüero and Higuain. With this formation there is, a bit like in the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 Copa America, a tendency that he takes on a playmaker role and becomes more of a provider than finisher. His goalscoring statistics under Sabella remain formidable, but playing slightly further up the field he is closer to goal and the numerous fouls that he inevitably suffers during a game result in more dangerous free kicks or even penalties. One way of achieving this would be to remove Higuain, who would still have an important role to play as a substitute, and replace him with a playmaker such as Ever Banega or Javier Pastore. Such a move would also give better balance against very strong opposition. This should not be seen as a criticism of Messi, rather as a personal reflection of how an already devastating strike force could become even better. A well-known British broadcaster famously questioned whether Messi could “handle a cold night in Stoke”. On Wednesday night Messi at least showed that he could handle a cold night in Stockholm, albeit in a newly built stadium that dealt with the most unpleasant aspects of the Swedish winter.
Again, thank you to Fredrik for sending in his match report!