Argentina finished top of group A in the recently concluded group stages of the ongoing Copa America. They finished unbeaten in a strong group, picking up ten points in four games.
La Albicieste began with a 1-1 draw against Chile and then won the next three games against Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. Messi and Co. will now face Ecuador, who came fourth in group B for a place in the semifinals of the Copa America.
Five points for Argentina coach Lionel Scolani to note at Copa America 2021
#5 Marcos Acuña has to start over Tagliafico
We start off with the left-back situation. There are two candidates for the LB spot - Ajax's Nicolas Tagliafico and Sevilla's Marcos Acuña. Both started two games each with the former playing against Chile and Paraguay and the latter starting the other two games.
I think it's fair to say that they have had contrasting performances. Tagliafico has been one of the best LBs in the world for the last few years. But his performances at this Copa America and in the lead up to it haven't inspired any confidence at all.
He has been extremely erratic defensively, often making mistakes be it by rushing into rash challenges or not showing enough defensive awareness. His attacking has also been underwhelming.
Acuña on the other hand, has been solid defensively and provided some much needed width to the attack. The Sevilla man must start in the Copa America knockout games over Tagliafico.
#4 The emergence of Emiliano Martinez at Copa America
Argentina's goalkeeping situation has been in tatters ever since former first choice Sergio Romero moved to Manchester United in 2015, where he barely ever played. The likes of Willy Caballero and Franco Armani have made multiple guffaws in high profile matches which have hurt the team.
In such circumstances the emergence of Emi Martinez at Copa America has been a relief for Argentina.
Martinez exploded into the public eye with a string of excellent performances for Arsenal at the back end of the 19/20 season following an injury to Bernd Leno. In the 20/21 season, he was arguably the best keeper in the Premier League while playing for Aston Villa.
Martinez is a good shot stopper, reliable with his feet and excellent at claiming crosses. He has only conceded 1 goal in the three games he has played at Copa America, that too coming from the rebound of a penalty he had originally saved.
#3 The importance of Cristian Romero
Despite boasting a plethora of attacking excellence, it is fair to say that this Argentina side has underwhelmed since the 2014 World Cup. A large part of the blame lies with their defense.
Since the retirement of the aging Javier Mascherano, there hasn't been anyone reliable in the defense. The likes of Otamendi, Rojo, Funes Mori and others have regularly featured and haven't impressed at all. This is why the emergence of Cristian Romero has been important.
The Atalanta man is a proactive defender and has a real warrior streak in him, not unlike Mascherano. His presence has shored up the defense and made it look like the best version of itself in recent years.
The 23 year old, who was adjudged Serie A defender of the season in 20/21 is a threat in the opponent's box too, as his 3 goals and 3 assists for Atalanta this season would suggest. He also scored in Argentina's recent 2-2 draw in the World Cup qualifier against Colombia.
On the basis of talent or current level, he should be partnered by Ajax's Lisandro Martinez but Scaloni prefers the experience of Pezzalla or Otamendi alongside Romero.
#2 Struggles in controlling the game
Argentina's first 3 group games at Copa America followed a similar pattern. They were very good for the first 20 minutes or so and scored early in each game. They then struggled to impose themselves for the rest of the game, often losing possession and conceding frequent chances unnecessarily.
They have also struggled to finish chances that would put the game out of their opponent's reach. A lot of this problem of game management can be resolved if Argentina were to be able to keep the ball and comfortably pass it around among themselves or build attacks.
A fair bit of this is a personnel issue. They have solid ball winners like Guido Rodriguez or Leandro Paredes and chance creators like Messi or Alejandro Gomez.
But they lack a proper center midfielder who can just control the proceedings of the game and keep the team ticking in the fashion of a Sergio Busquets or a Toni Kroos. This problem can again be sorted out to some extent by playing Rodrigo De Paul and Giovanni Lo Celso together in midfield.
They are the best central midfielders available to Argentina at Copa America, but how far that will be possible depends on who else is playing and their profiles.
#1 Messi still the best but needs support
Lionel Messi, now Argentina's record appearance maker with 148 caps, is still a talisman for the national team as he has been since his debut. He turned 34 during the course of the Copa America and is still close to being unplayable. This is despite playing 90 minutes almost every game for Barcelona this season.
Even in this year's Copa America, he has been outstanding, topping both the scoring and assisting charts after the group stage. Out of the seven goals Argentina scored in the four games, Messi either scored or assisted five and was heavily involved in the buildup for the other two as well.
He is still by far their best creator as well, as shown by his mesmerizing dribbles against Uruguay and the wonderful assist for Gomez against Bolivia. But it is true that he needs support.
Papu Gomez has been good in both the games he's played at Copa America and he can share both the goalscoring and creating responsibilities with the great man. In the striking department, neither Aguero nor Lautaro Martinez have been great, often missing extremely presentable chances.
Aguero's chemistry and understanding with Messi is obviously better and that might tilt the balance in his favor but that comes with its own problems as well. All 3 of Gomez, Messi and Aguero are over the age of 33 and offer very little in terms of pressing or off the ball workrate.
This opens up a new dilemma of whether to play 3 attackers in a 433 or 4 attackers in a 4231 to compensate for the lack of workrate of the aforementioned three players.
The latter would mean opportunities for either Fiorentina's new signing Nicolas Gonzalez or Atletico Madrid's Angel Correa. Both have impressed overall at Copa America but have been guilty of missing good chances. There is also the option of Angel Di Maria, whose qualities are undoubtedly well known.
The problem of playing a 4231 would mean that Argentina would have to sacrifice one or possibly both De Paul and Lo Celso. This would bring back the midfield issues mentioned in the previous point.
These are all things that Scaloni has to keep in mind as Argentina prepare to win the Copa America which would surely be Messi's last.