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Argentina have tough WCQ test after Bauza

Five Aside
Read

Maradona's 'moral' Hand of God

ESPN FC & Howler
Read
 By Tim Vickery

Bauza's successor faces huge task to resurrect an unbalanced Argentina

Shaka Hislop feels Bauza's sacking was a long time coming, but will this turn things around for lacklustre Argentina?

"We've told [Edgardo] Bauza that he is no longer coach of the national team," said new Argentina FA boss Claudio Tapia on Monday evening.

It brings to an end a messy two weeks in Buenos Aires, during which the rumour mill churned out gossip of Bauza's sacking amid official declarations that his job was safe.

Down in fifth place in South America's World Cup qualification table, the Argentina national team have looked shambolic on the field, and off it the country's football administration has been even more of a mess.

This is why Bauza was hurriedly rushed into the job in the first place. The chaos and power vacuum at the heart of Argentina football made itself evident during last year's Copa Centenario in the United States. The players complained that the logistical side -- flying them around the country -- was being handled poorly, and this was clearly a contributory factor in Lionel Messi's decision, announced immediately after the final, to retire from international football.

Not long afterwards coach Gerardo Martino, thoroughly frustrated by unpaid wages and the chaotic build up to the Olympic tournament, also jumped ship. Bauza was hurriedly brought in as a replacement. His first victory -- the major triumph of his brief reign -- was to persuade Messi to rethink. But things became more difficult as soon as the ball started rolling, which was hardly a surprise.

A centre-back in his playing days, Bauza has a track record as a thoroughly competent club coach in South American football. He made his name in charge of Rosario Central, the club he most represented as a player, fashioning an attractive side which reached the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores in 2001, the club's best-ever performance in the competition.

He won the league in Peru with Sporting Cristal and then -- a genuinely outstanding achievement -- built a team with LDU of Quito that made clever use of the conditions of altitude and became the first Ecuadorian winners of the Libertadores. He won the trophy once more with San Lorenzo of Argentina -- their first win in the competition -- and last year, albeit in unimpressive style, reached the semifinals with Sao Paulo of Brazil.

It is a fine resume. But it is one that did not necessarily leave him prepared for the national team job, especially when parachuted in at short notice with not a single friendly to allow him to prepare for eight rounds of the most competitive World Cup qualification campaign on the planet.

In addition to the lack of preparation time, there were two other problems. One is that these days there is a massive gulf in quality between the level of players in South American club football and those representing the national team.

In the final of the 2014 Club World Cup, between Real Madrid and Bauza's San Lorenzo, the Argentines were totally outgunned. A pea-shooter army against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. Real won 2-0, and in Brazilian left-back Marcelo and Colombia's James Rodriguez they could boast the best South Americans on the field. The basic organisation of the San Lorenzo team, sufficient enough to win the continental title, was hopelessly inadequate against opponents of Real's calibre.

Edgardo Bauza oversaw three wins, two draws and three defeats in his brief time in charge of Argentina.

And now, with Argentina, Bauza would be in the deep end against the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, and even Venezuela's Salomon Rondon, proved too hot to handle.

The other problem was that Bauza inherited a strangely unbalanced team. It is some time -- perhaps going all the way back to the 2006 World Cup and the following year's Copa America -- since Argentina have been a consistent, consolidated, collective unit. There have been plenty of flashes of brilliance in recent years, chiefly, of course, from Messi. But the side has rarely looked properly balanced.

Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the World Cup at under-20 level on five occasions. Since then, they have not come close. The well of talent, at least in defensive positions, has been drying up, and this has now fed through to the senior ranks.

True, the team did reach three finals in the last three years -- the World Cup in 2014, the Copa America in 2015 and last year's Copa Centenario. But it has been very dependent on two players. Messi to provide the attacking flair, and Javier Mascherano, now approaching 34, to protect a suspect defensive unit and knit the side together.

Bauza proved unable to end this dependency and solve this problem. His team looked horribly disjointed. The figures are mediocre -- three wins, two draws, three defeats, with nine goals scored and 10 conceded. There was no circuit of midfield passing to bring the strikers into the game. Astonishingly, 14 rounds into the campaign (remembering, of course, that Bauza was only in charge for eight of them) Argentina have scored fewer goals than bottom of the table Venezuela.

And with little collective play, the onus has all the more fallen on Messi to do something special. The statistics tell the story. The six games Messi has played have brought five victories. The eight he has missed (almost all through injury) have brought just one. The thought of being without Messi for the next three games (for which he is suspended) is worrying indeed.

But it is no longer Bauza's problem. It seems that the Argentine FA are gunning for either Diego Simeone or Jorge Sampaoli. The fact that they are interested in two coaches of such wildly different styles is in itself evidence of the lack of any clear planning. Can one of these two be tempted to turn their backs on European club football? Or will Argentina have to scratch around in the search for a replacement?

At least the new man will have an advantage over Bauza. He will have the luxury of a friendly -- a meeting with Brazil in Australia in June -- to look at some options and prepare a team to visit Uruguay in the next crunch round of qualification at the end of August.

Bauza never got that chance. It was sink or swim, and the man nicknamed "big foot" has now been given the boot.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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