Mexico and Argentina renew a heated rivalry on Sunday between the two Latin American soccer powerhouses.
Will Mexico be able to slow down Messi?
Will El Tri capitalize on Argentina's mental mistakes?
Here's a primer after the jump.Four years ago, Argentina and Mexico found themselves in exactly the same position - a round of 16 match-up in the World Cup. It was an epic game which saw Mexico take an early lead on a Rafa Marquez header. The game was knotted up again when Jared Borgetti attempted to clear a corner kick, but instead headed the ball into his own goal (Argentina's Hernan Crespo was credited with the goal). The drama of extra time set the stage for what ended up being the goal of the tournament:
You would be hard-pressed to find a more amazing goal in such a clutch situation.
Similarities to the last meeting abound -- Argentina looks like a powerhouse again through three games (only time will tell if they were the beneficiary of a weak group), while Mexico struggled through the group stage (once again) against arguably inferior talent (South Africa) and a team in complete turmoil (France). Even Uruguay was not expected to make much noise after it needed to win a playoff against Costa Rica to even qualify. Still, all bets are off when these two teams play because of the bitterness of the rivalry between the two countries and Mexico's desire to avenge the 2006 Cup loss.
Although many of the names haven't changed, Sunday's game is expected to be substantially different than the last meeting because of the emergence of Leo Messi as the top player in the sport. Four years ago, Messi was barely 19 and nothing more than a raw phenom. So far, Messi has been unable to tally a goal in this cup even though he has taken at least 6 shots on goal in each of the first three games. And while Messi has failed to score, his play otherwise has been nothing short of sublime. His often criticized coach, Diego Maradona, has done a good job of mixing up Argentina's line-ups and strategy and Messi has been given the freedom to roam the pitch.
Here's how I see this one breaking down...
Mexico will win if: First and foremost, Mexico can win if it manages to score first. The one thing Argentina has yet to face in this Cup is adversity, and going down one or two goals early could cause Argentina's free-flowing attack to tighten up. Scoring early is easier said that done, however. Mexico will need to capitalize on any mistake Argentina's defense makes. Although guys like Heinze and Demichelis play on major, major club teams they do have a tendency to make sloppy passes or gamble on deep balls. Sergio Romero (ARG GK) has given up one goal on five shots and his play has been solid. However, if Mexico can take advantage of a mistake and have a one-on-one situation with the keeper -- then you have to favor the guy with the soccer ball. If Mexico can take advantage and put one into the back of the net, beware.
Second, Mexico can win if it controls the time of possession. Messi can't beat you if he doesn't have the ball, right? The trick to this is not allowing Messi to get the ball in first place. In order to pull this off, Mexico's midfielders will have to play their butts off and make life hell for Argentina's weakest link aka the midfielders. I think Mexico's rough style of play can give Argentina fits in the middle third of the pitch, and if Messi has to consistently pick up the ball in the midfield then he's less of a threat to score.
Third, Mexico can win if it can score on the counter-attack. Argentina will commit six, seven, or even eight guys in the attacking third, which only leaves three defenders and the goalie to cover a strong outlet pass/fast break. If Mexico can score on a counter, it can take the lead and cause Argentina to attack with less players. Finally, Mexico would be plenty happy to take this thing to penalty shootout.
Argentina will win if: Argentina will win if Messi takes more than 7 shots on goal. The benefit of having a guy like Messi on your team is that defenders will leave their assignments if Messi is able to avoid a couple would-be tackles near the box. Messi is plenty capable of getting a decent shot off in traffic, and if his shot hits a post, is punched by the goalie, or deflects off of a defender then Argentina will have at least two or three players in position for the rebound.
Second, Argentina can win if the midfielders are attacking the goal. Maradona said yesterday that one of the biggest differences between his team this summer versus the one that struggled in qualifying is the fact that the midfielders are pushing up the pitch and attacking the goal. this means that Messi isn't having to dribble the ball up to the box, and instead he can attack soft spots in the defense with surgical precision. When opportunities aren't there, Messi will simply find his midfield or fullback safety valve and reorganize the attack. This approach has helped Argentina dominate the time of possession and skew corners and free kicks in its favor. Although the strategy is vulnerable to counter-attacks, if Argentina is able to take the lead, Mexico will have to be willing to gamble even more and leave themselves open to a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th goal.
Third, Argentina wins if Higuain, Tevez, and Aguero keep generating scoring plays and opportunities. With all the focus on Messi, these three guys could make Argentina's day a walk in the park if they could convert more than 3 out of 19 combined shots on goal. Higuain has been stellar, now its time for Tevez -- arguably the heart of the team - to find the net.
Prediction: I expect this will be a tight match in the early going and Mexico will try to dictate things with strong challenges from their defense. However, no one has come close to stopping Messi for 90 minutes, and I don't believe Mexico has the talent to do it. Additionally, Argentina's line-up is a huge advantage in this one, and the fact that key players like Veron, Mascherano, Tevez, Higuain, and the entire defense rested the last game means that they will be fresh. It will be knotted at halftime, but Messi gets off the schneid and Argentina wins 3-1 with some late 2nd half goals.