Lionel Messi bounces back with Argentina as Tite inspires Brazil
All the debutant coaches had wins to celebrate in the seventh round of South America's World Cup qualification campaign, while Lionel Messi announced himself back on the international scene in style.
The reign of Angel Guillermo Hoyos in charge of Bolivia got off to a victorious start with a 2-0 win over Peru in the first game of the day, and Francisco Arce's Paraguay brought the curtain down with a 2-1 triumph over Chile -- a result that leaves the Copa Centenario champions down in seventh position. In between, in the outstanding result of the round, Tite's Brazil won 3-0 away to Ecuador, and Edgardo Bauza got off to a winning start with Argentina, who beat by the only goal against historic rivals Uruguay.
But the night of the new boys also belonged to the man who thought long and hard about leaving the scene. Thankfully, Messi went back on his decision to retire from representing Argentina. In an age where club football has become so dominant, the international game can ill afford to lose such an extraordinary talent, who gave a cameo of his genius when he managed to breach the typically determined and defiant Uruguayan defence in Argentina's 1-0 victory.
There was hardly a square inch of space on the edge of the opposing penalty area. But it was one of those moments when Messi is worthy of the words the BBC radio commentator used as Diego Maradona set off on the run that would lead to his stunning second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals.
"Wriggling like a little eel," said Bryan Butler 30 years ago, and now Messi twisted and turned until he could fire off a shot. Uruguay will claim they were unlucky, that the shot took a deflection off Jose Maria Gimenez that wrong-footed goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. But when a side seeks to reduce the opposition's space by defending so deep, a deflection is an occupational hazard.
Argentina move to the top of the qualification table but the jury will remain out on Bauza's side. The new coach has made only one real alteration to the team he inherited from Gerardo Martino, but it is a significant one -- the introduction of Lucas Pratto as a centre-forward and a switch from a basic 4-3-3 to something more like 4-2-3-1, with Messi, Angel Di Maria and Pablo Dybala operating behind Pratto.
Does Pratto have the quality to combine with Messi? It is unclear whether he does. He was little involved in the circuitry of passing, though Bauza could argue that his presence took care of the centre-backs, thus creating some much-needed space for the other three to combine.
Part of the reason why the experiment is inconclusive is that Dybala was sent off -- a little harshly -- on the verge of half time. After the break, Pratto showed his versatility by operating wide on the right, with Messi prowling in the centre-forward position. And then for the last 20 minutes Pratto was replaced by the other target man figure in the squad, River Plate centre forward Lucas Alario, who also was forced to carry out an improvised role on the right. It seemed a strange decision. The introduction of an extra midfielder, such as Ever Banega, would surely have helped Argentina retain possession.
Bauza's team held on comfortably enough, though -- in no small part due to another excellent display from Javier Mascherano, another who flirted with the idea of retiring from the national team. The combative side of his game means that Mascherano's talent on the ball is often overlooked. In the first half, when Uruguay sat deep, his link up with Messi was important. Indeed, the goal came after a forward pass he planted for his Barcelona teammate. And in the dying seconds, when Argentina launched a counterattack, there was Mascherano steaming forward to take a pass from Messi and hand Nico Gaitan the chance to wrap up the game with a second goal.
It is at the other end, though, that he is most important, reading the game superbly, tackling crisply and continually getting back to make vital blocks whenever the centre backs are beaten.
Argentina's defence occasionally gives the impression that it is held together by gaffer tape and Mascherano. When he does finally leave the international stage, what on earth will Argentina do without him?
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.