Argentina has big weaknesses to address before facing France
ST. PETERSBURG, France — After the euphoria of scraping through to the last 16 of the World Cup, Argentina now must address its glaring weaknesses.
Argentina has little time to prepare for Saturday’s match against France, which is considered among the tournament favorites, yet has much to work on.
Particularly on defense.
Argentina’s feeble defense was exposed in 3-0 defeat to Croatia last week and once again in Tuesday’s 2-1 must-win game against Nigeria. Argentina won with an 86th-minute goal from defender Marcos Rojo, but during the second half the team looked on the verge of another capitulation at the back.
Here is a look at some of the key issues facing Jorge Sampaoli’s team before taking on France in Kazan:
If Javier Mascherano is supposed to be protecting the defense, he’s not doing a very good job.
With 146 international appearances, the 34-year-old Mascherano should be a rock for Sampaoli’s team.
But instead of offering the protective screen in front of the back four, Mascherano is often proving to be a weak link.
As his bloodied face on Tuesday showed, there is no doubting his commitment.
But his judgment, especially for someone with so much experience, is lacking.
Two horribly misplaced passes gave Nigeria dangerous positions to attack from, while it was Mascherano’s clumsy challenge that led to Nigeria’s equalizing goal from the penalty spot.
In his defense, there may be mitigating circumstances.
Although a holding midfielder by trade, Mascherano dropped deeper when deployed as a center half for Barcelona over the past few years.
Now back in his traditional position, he often appears caught in two minds as to whether to push up as a midfielder does, or stay back more sensibly like a defender.
While it does not excuse his poor passing, it may explain some of his confused judgment.
Angel Di Maria’s failure to control a simple pass during a promising counterattack against Nigeria was a sad sight for such a fine talent.
As the ball flew off his foot and went out of play, a helpless look formed on Di Maria’s face.
Long considered one of the world’s best wingers, the 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain player is not living up to his reputation in Russia.
He looked despondent when he was taken off against Nigeria with 20 minutes left, his self-confidence glaringly absent.
But it is feasible he is still affected by what happened during the season with PSG.
Di Maria was PSG’s most in-form player heading into the first leg of its Champions League last-16 game against Real Madrid on Feb. 14, but was surprisingly left out entirely by PSG coach Unai Emery.
“I was boiling (inside) because I felt I should have played, or at least have come on,” Di Maria said.
Perhaps his fragile confidence has not been repaired.
But Mascherano and Di Maria are not the only big-name players performing well below their best.
So is Gonzalo Higuain.
The burly striker looked nervous and heavy-legged against Nigeria, blazing a great chance high and wide with the score 1-1 with 10 minutes left.
In the end, he was reprieved by Rojo’s late winner, but it was not the finish expected of a forward with a combined 267 goals for Real Madrid, Napoli and Juventus.
He has 31 for Argentina, too, but tellingly he has not scored in his past eight games for his country.
WHERE IS DYBALA?
Fans hoping to see Paulo Dybala, one of the brightest attacking talents in soccer, playing in Russia may not get their wish.
The 24-year-old forward regularly impresses Juventus fans with his trickery and spectacular goals — scoring 26 times in 46 appearances last season — but for whatever reason, Sampaoli does not seem to need him.
With time running out against Nigeria, the coach still did not bring him on, even though Dybala has the skill and imagination to unlock defenses.
He has only played once for Argentina all year, and with Sampaoli in charge this does not look like it will change.
Although France has yet to find its top form , Argentina’s creaking defense will be under threat from its highly rated forwards.
Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are two of the fastest players in the world, while Antoine Griezmann was top scorer at the European Championship two years ago.
Imposing striker Olivier Giroud is one of the best headers of the ball around, which gives Sampaoli’s back four even more to worry about from crosses, corners and free kicks.