Bad start for new Argentina coach
Last Tuesday when Venezuela beat Argentina in the second round of South America's World Cup qualifiers it was historic, but hardly surprising.
Venezuela have been making dramatic strides, had home advantage and were taking on an especially vulnerable Argentina side - whose 4-1 win at home to Chile the previous Friday may have disguised the fact.
As highly influential former national team coach Cesar Luis Menotti commented, "against Chile we didn't play well, against an opponent that went out to commit suicide" - a reference to the absurdly attacking line up of the Chileans (largely rectified in the following match where coach Claudio Borghi reverted to his customary 3-4-1-2 as Chile beat Peru 4-2 in a magnificent game in Lima).
Against Venezuela, then, came the moment of truth for Argentina, and as all self-belief drained out of the side in the second half it was clear that Menotti had a point when he complained about the absence of any coherent central idea.
"If we don't define the idea," he continued, "we won't take advantage of the abilities of the players. I don't know what Rojo is playing at, I didn't understand the position of Di Maria, Mascherano was neither a midfielder nor a centre-back and the back three were disorganised."
These were typically astute observations. At left-back or wing-back, Marcos Rojo provides more evidence of Argentina's problems down the flanks, making it all the more surprising that Angel Di Maria started off in a central role.
And unlike Barcelona's high line, Argentina's defence dropped deep to protect the lack of pace of Martin De Michelis being exposed, leaving Javier Mascherano floating in front of a porous back three.
The Argentina players trudged off the pitch after their shock defeat against Venezuela. Photo: Reuters
Menotti is not seeking to put the boot into Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella. His words are more a recognition that Sabella has been thrown in the deep end and, rich in resources in some positions but struggling elsewhere, had little time to find a blend before the kick off of the World Cup qualifiers.
It was not supposed to be this way. The idea was that July's Copa America would serve as a testing ground, preparing the continent's teams for the long journey to Brazil 2014.
But instead of consolidating a project, in the case of Argentina the Copa ended up destroying one.
Sergio Batista was sacked and in came Sabella - assistant for many years to Daniel Passarella but with only one coaching job to his name. Big changes are made in little time - not since the early days of the Diego Maradona regime had Argentina gone into a competitive game with a back three, for example. It is hardly surprising that Sabella has run into early problems.
Argentina were not the only team to change coaches after the Copa. It happened to Paraguay, too. The Argentine Gerardo Martino resigned even though his team reached the final, a decision founded on the feeling that he had taken his men as far as they could go.
Replacement Francisco Arce was a top player, but he too has little on his coaching CV. And he has already made his mark, cutting out of his squad the Argentina-born players of Paraguayan descent that Martino had introduced.
With little time to bed in his changes, Paraguay have made a poor start to the qualifying campaign. Only a last gasp equaliser at home to Uruguay saved them from getting underway with successive defeats.
Of course, part of the beauty of South America's qualifiers is that there is plenty of time for teams to click. Argentina and Paraguay will be striving to do this over the next two years. On the other hand, this campaign is likely to be so tight that points dropped now may well be regretted come the end of the competition.
There is one country, though, that changed coaches after the Copa and as yet have no grounds for regret.
In the eight games of the campaign's opening two rounds, Colombia are the only team to have managed an away win - all the more laudable since it came against Bolivia at the extreme altitude of La Paz, the venue visitors dread.
True, Colombia have altitude experience of their own, with their capital city Bogota up in the Andes, and the fact they sat out the first round of fixtures gave them more time to prepare, but all the same, the three points came as a wonderful start to the campaign, and for Lionel Alvarez in his first competitive match in charge.
The story of Colombia's change at the top is different from that of Argentina or Paraguay. Hernan Dario Gomez did not leave for footballing reasons. Instead he was forced out after a scandal - he was seen hitting a woman outside a Bogota bar.
Initially the Colombian FA approached Martino, who had just walked out on Paraguay. He turned them down, in large part due to the lack of time to prepare for the qualifiers. So the eminently sensible decision was taken to promote Alvarez, the holding midfielder in the great late 80s and early 90s side, who had been assistant to Gomez.
Though he may go with something more ambitious in the home matches, in La Paz Alvarez stuck with the 4-1-4-1 that Colombia employed in the Copa America.
This, then, was a case of continuity - but with the difference of added quality. On the left of midfield in came James Rodriguez of Porto, unavailable for the Copa because he had been with the Under-20s as Colombia hosted the World Youth Cup.
Rodriguez opened up the pitch with his left foot - Adrian Ramos, previous first choice in the position is very right-footed. He gave a performance of astonishing maturity, choosing his options well - including in the stoppage time counter attack that brought Colombia their winning goal.
In the Copa the side lacked a touch of inspiration in the final third. Rodriguez just might be the solution - perhaps Alejandro Sabella and Argentina will find out when they visit Colombia next month.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I have always felt that Joffre Guerron could be a hit in the Premier League. He wouldn't be very expensive and surely his pace, power and reasonable eye for goal would suit him perfectly to the English game? Why do you think it is that an English club hasn't taken a chance on him?
A) I think there's plenty of evidence to justify the fact that the Ecuadorian is not in England. At the moment he's in Brazil with Atletico Paranaense, who are in the relegation zone and have scored fewer goals than anyone else. He's never scored for his country and when he went over to Spain he had an unhappy time with Getafe. His compatriot Cristian Suarez might be a better bet.
Q) Could you comment on Alejandro Sabella's exclusion of Javier Pastore during the first round of qualifiers? He didn't even come on as a sub against Chile and doesn't appear to be in the line-up for tomorrow against Venezuela. I believe he and Jose Sosa fill a similar role but Pastore is a superior player who adds more of a direct threat when necessary. I know Sabella coached Sosa at Estudiantes and is probably comfortable with him but it seems like a waste to leave a talent like Pastore on the sidelines.
A) It didn't make much sense at the time, and makes even less looking back at the Venezuela game - when at least Pastore did come on for the last few minutes.
I think the explanation probably lies in some of the issues considered in this week's article. Thrown in the deep end without much experience, the temptation is for Sabella to go with players he knows and trusts. He did a superb job in his first year with Estudiantes - arguably not such a good job in his second Libertadores campaign. But the level he is working at now is much higher, and while I think he might get there in the end, it will take him a while to find his feet.