Having three teams on the go is a risk for Argentina
In an end-of-season international friendly, with one side leading 4-0, why on earth would the referee want to add on a heap of stoppage time? Surely the best advice would be to blow up and let everyone go home.
But that is not what Ibrahim Chaibou did last Wednesday when he was in charge of the match between Nigeria and Argentina in Abuja. He added on five extra minutes. True, there had been plenty of second-half substitutions but it was hard to see why five extra minutes were necessary or desirable.
But then it got stranger. Five minutes came and went. Then six. Then seven. And then he awarded Argentina an absurd penalty for a non-existent handball. Mauro Boselli converted it to make the final score 4-1 to the home side.
With an alleged splurge of bets on a late goal, it is little wonder that Fifa is opening an investigation into the events.
Referee Ibrahim Chaibou, in the red top, is surrounded by Argentina players after he awarded a penalty against them in the 4-1 defeat by Nigeria, in Abuja. Photo: AP
Describing that Argentina side as "under strength" or as a "reserve" team does not come close. Coach Sergio Batista has announced a provisional 26-man squad for next month's Copa America (incidentally, readers of my column from two weeks ago might be interested to know that Carlos Tevez has been included) but only three of them - reserve defenders Pablo Zabaleta, Emiliano Insua and Ezequiel Garay - were on duty in Nigeria.
This line-up was at best a C team. One quick example suffices to illustrate the chasm between this and the real line-up. At full strength, Argentina play 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi in the middle of their attacking trident. Against Nigeria, the same role was filled by Mauro Boselli.
Batista currently has three almost entirely separate squads on the go: the first-choice group for the Copa America; a group drawn from domestic football; and the collection of fringe players who, after losing to Nigeria, went down 2-1 to Poland on Sunday.
This clearly gives Batista something to do. Bosses of international teams sometimes complain that prolonged spells of inactivity can take the edge off their coaching skills.
It also gives him a chance to observe lots of players, which can be worthwhile even if the conclusions are not always palatable. In these last two matches, for example, Batista will have observed that, with a midfield that is unable to retain the ball, his 4-3-3 system is wide open against opponents who attack with pace and that, left exposed, his young defenders lack the quality to save the situation.
The performance against Poland was an improvement on the rout against Nigeria. Little striker Jonathan Cristaldo had some good moments, while centre-forward Marco Ruben took his goal well. But these are crumbs of comfort when set against the risk that Batista is running by accumulating these defeats.
He took over in 2010 with the claim that he and his back-up staff would be low profile. But losing, especially in the manner that the team went down to Nigeria, makes Batista and his reign an issue. It cranks up the pressure on him as Argentina prepare to play the Copa America in front of their own fans.
True, none of the players he will pick next month were in action against Nigeria or Poland. But, with no senor title since 1993, Argentina are under enough pressure as it is and an edgy coach can make for an edgy team.
At least Argentina can count on their supporters to be kinder to them than the notoriously fickle Brazilian fans are to their team. For Brazil, the Copa America is the most serious competitive test they face as they prepare to play the World Cup on home ground in 2014.
The new-look side of coach Mano Menezes had a taste of what could be in store when they drew 0-0 at home to the Netherlands on Saturday. A chorus of boos greeted the final whistle in Goiania, while the crowd started to cheer every Dutch pass before the game had finished.
"We need to educate our fans in time for 2014," said Menezes after the game, "acknowledging that we'll be up against strong opponents and that, at important moments, the crowd should support us and not go over to the other side. We have to be united if we're going to take advantage of being the hosts."
The boos on Saturday were hardly justified by an entertaining 90 minutes. Brazil were poor in the first half, their 4-3-3 looking very inflexible, with Robinho and Neymar either side of centre-forward Fred. Until half-time, the Dutch were more dangerous.
Brazil's Neymar (centre) competes with Netherlands' Tim Krul (left) and Gregory van der Wiel during the 0-0 draw in Goiania. Photo: Reuters
But it was a different story after the break. Robinho was given more freedom, the formation looked more like a 4-2-3-1 and Brazil had more of attacking threat. They will have days when they play worse and score four.
It was a fascinating afternoon for Neymar-watchers, with the Santos star taking on a top-class European team for the first time. He was not as effective as usual in one-against-one situations but produced enough moments of magic to reinforce the view that he is a very special talent.
Tim Krul in the Netherlands goal had to be constantly alert to Neymar's ability to finish with calm precision off either foot, although the Brazilian did earn a yellow card for diving. So did the latest wonderkid, Lucas, of Sao Paulo, who was cautioned for a ridiculous theatrical effort. Fred also seemed primarily concerned with going to ground. A centre-forward in this system must try to stay on his feet and provide a platform.
Menezes recognises Brazil have a problem against opponents who are defensive or who know how to mark well. It might not be easy when boos are coming down from the terraces but the remedy would seem to be less frustration, more elaboration, more patience and less diving. Not every referee will point to the spot with the eagerness shown last Wednesday by Ibrahim Chaibou.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I was wondering if you could shed any light on the future of River Plate's Erik Lamela. I know that River have been struggling recently and there has been a lot of talk of Lamela maybe moving to Serie A.
A) Everyone has been looking at him, which is no surprise because he is the genuine article, a lanky midfielder with a nice change of pace and a lovely left foot, who takes responsibility, has vision and can combine well with others. Usually, I am against the premature move but I do not know if River Plate are doing him any good at the moment. They are in relegation danger and panicking, with a defensive side and a strategy that seems to demand that Lamela sorts out everything on his own. The worry is that this might prove to be too much responsibility for a 19-year-old.
Q) I just recently watched my first ever Copa Libertadores match in full, Penarol's second leg, semi-final match against Velez Sarsfield. Even though Penarol went through on away goals, it was Velez's Juan Manuel Martinez who really caught my eye. That was the first time I had ever heard of him or seen him and would like to know if he produces performances such as this one on a regular basis?
A) He does, which is why he has been included recently in the full Argentina squad. I suspect the only reason he is not in the provisional 26 for the Copa America is that someone had to make way for the return of Tevez. Martinez won the decisive penalty when he came on as a substitute against Portugal earlier this year. That strong dribbling you saw cutting in from the flanks last week is his trademark. An interesting thing about him is that he is one of a number of Argentine players recently whose career picked up momentum elsewhere in South America. He was a member of Colombian side Cucuta, who emerged from nowhere to light up the 2007 Copa Libertadores. He is one to watch for a move to Europe.