Sampaoli's Argentina need to lessen dependence on Messi vs. Venezuela
Now on their third coach of the campaign, Argentina think that finally they have the right man in charge. But there has been no instant revolution under Jorge Sampaoli. On the evidence of Thursday's 0-0 draw with Uruguay, there is plenty of work ahead; not only to make sure that Argentina are competitive in next year's World Cup, but to ensure that they qualify for the competition at all.
With home games in two of the last three rounds -- against Venezuela this week and Peru next month -- something will have to go badly wrong for Argentina to finish lower than their current position of fifth (the playoff spot) and miss out altogether on Russia 2018. But the team still look very unconvincing, and there has been no reduction in the almost absurd dependence on Lionel Messi.
In the seven qualifying matches in which Messi has played, Argentina have picked up 16 points. In the eight matches he has missed, they have accumulated just seven. And he remained a one-man band against Uruguay.
Sampaoli considers Javier Mascherano to be a defender, and his lack of height was not trusted against the Uruguayans. But he was missed as a midfielder because of that aspect of his game that flies under the radar: his passing. When Argentina won their home game 1-0 against Uruguay last year, Messi scored the decisive goal after receiving the ball in the danger area from a planted pass from Mascherano. Now, with Lucas Biglia and Guido Pizarro in the engine room in the return game, Messi had to track all the way back deep in his own half to set Argentina's moves in motion. The return from suspension of Ever Banega against Venezuela should improve matters.
On Thursday, Messi was also not helped by Sampaoli's strange decision to play Marcos Acuna wide on the right. The coach's system requires quick penetration down the flanks, generating numerical superiority in the final third and getting behind the opposing defence. This was all the more necessary against a team that spent most of the game defending with eight players. So it made little sense to field a left-footed player on the right flank. Acuna inevitably cut in onto his stronger foot, making the pitch smaller and facilitating the task of the Uruguayans.
It was harder, then, for Messi to find space to connect with Paulo Dybala; indeed, it is still not clear that they form a natural partnership. And centre-forward Mauro Icardi was unable to get into the game.
There should be more space available against the Venezuelans, for two reasons. Firstly, because much to his own regret, Venezuela's key central midfielder Tomas Rincon picked up a yellow card in stoppage time of his side's 0-0 draw against Colombia, and is forced to sit out the visit to Argentina. Rincon is the balance point of the team, and his experience will be missed.
And secondly because Venezuela might be a little more ambitious than Uruguay. They have no chance of making it to Russia, but have been buoyed by their recent success at under-20 level, where they reached the final of that age group's World Cup. Venezuela, then, are building enthusiastically for the 2022 World Cup, and the strongest part of the current team is their attacking pace. Centre-forward Salomon Rondon is backed up by the speed of Josef Martinez, Darwin Mathis, Sergio Cordova, John Murillo and Romulo Otero. The Rondon-Martinez combination has given Argentina plenty of problems in recent games.
Venezuela will hope to defend well enough to keep out Messi. Much will depend on outstanding young goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez and also on Mikel Villanueva, whose switch from left-back to centre-back has added much needed speed to the heart of the defensive line. Providing Venezuela can keep things tight, then their attacking pace could cause problems for the weakest part of the Argentina side: their defensive unit.
Sampaoli's back three -- with the sluggish Federico Fazio in the middle -- did not inspire much confidence against Uruguay but came under little pressure. It will be fascinating to see whether Venezuela can embarrass them on the counter-attack and make Argentina's road to Russia even more rocky.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.