BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — A year later, Argentina is again facing the prospect of an early elimination.
After struggling in the group stage of the World Cup in Russia, Argentina also got off to a bad start at the Copa America in Brazil.
And another setback on Wednesday against Paraguay will leave the team in danger of enduring its worst fiasco in nearly four decades. The last time Argentina failed to advance past the group stage in the South American competition was in 1983.
Trying to end a title drought of 26 years, Argentina opened its Copa America campaign with a demoralizing 2-0 loss to Colombia, falling to last place in Group B after Paraguay and Qatar earned a point each from their 2-2 draw.
“We wanted to start differently,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said Tuesday. “But the players know we still have plenty of chances of advancing. Tomorrow’s match will be very important for us.”
At last year’s World Cup, Argentina needed a win over Nigeria in the final group match to avoid elimination. The team got it, but they then lost to France in the last 16.
Scaloni was part of the staff of then-coach Jorge Sampaoli, who was fired after the loss to the eventual champions. Scaloni, a former player, now faces the urgency of a good result against Paraguay at the Mineirao Stadium.
With a squad with less than half of the players who were in Russia, Argentina has shown little progress since the World Cup. The loss to Colombia revealed many of the mistakes the team endured in Russia, including the lack of efficiency in attack despite the leadership of Lionel Messi.
Messi was far from his best against Colombia but remained optimistic.
“This group is ready for this challenge and we will try to succeed,” said the 31-year-old Messi, the team’s oldest player at this year’s Copa America. “This group is strong and united. We can make it.”
Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria are the only survivors from the group that lost the finals of the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in 2015 and 2016. Aguero and Di Maria also struggled against Colombia, being heavily criticized back home.
Aguero had only one significant attempt on goal early in the game, while Di Maria was never a real threat against the Colombian defense. Udinese captain Rodrigo De Paul is now touted as a possible replacement for Di Maria after entering the match against Colombia and adding a spark to the Argentina attack.
Aguero had not been in Scaloni’s plans before the Copa America but his good season with Manchester City made it nearly impossible to leave the striker out of the squad. Scaloni previously had favored strikers with a greater presence in the area, such as Lautaro Martinez.
In defense, a lackluster performance by Renzo Saravia could lead to him being replaced by Milton Casco.
Paraguay has never beaten Argentina in 24 Copa America matches, but it has always proven a tough opponent thanks to its solid defensive system. Paraguay didn’t concede in its last two matches against its neighbor.
To make it even harder for Argentina, the Paraguayan defense is likely to be boosted by the return of Palmeiras defender Gustavo Gomez, who was suspended for the first match against Qatar.
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