South American soccer has always been defined by the twin pillars of Brazil and Argentina, and whichever of those two is on top at any given moment has to fight hard to keep the crown. With all due respect to the currently undefeated-in-qualifiers Brazil, though, it is Argentina that currently reigns supreme on the continent, as the Albiceleste have shaken off any historical cobwebs to rule over CONMEBOL in 2021.
Not only did Lionel Messi and Co. win their first international title since 1993 at this summer’s Copa América, but the side simply looks to be the best of the best right now, possibly in the entire world. There won’t be any arguments coming from Uruguay, after the Charrúas went into Buenos Aires on Sunday only to leave with a 3–0 loss for their troubles.
A 3–0 score-line would seem to indicate that Argentina romped all over its neighbors, but the reality makes the final score even more impressive. Nothing ever comes easy against Uruguay, and Sunday was no exception. The team in the sky blues came out firing, forcing Emiliano Martínez into a handful of truly excellent saves in the first half hour. A double save in the 6th minute was swiftly followed by a one-handed stop on a Luis Suárez volley in the 21st, and somehow Argentina held level.
Who else but Messi could change that? Though he hasn’t yet hit his stride at Paris Saint-Germain (this sick but unnecessary goal against Manchester City notwithstanding), Messi is having one of the best years of his international career in 2021. He continued that dominance on Sunday, continuously dropping into the midfield to shepherd his teammates forward. He finished the game with five long passes completed, three chances created, four completed dribbles, and one beautiful, completely unintentional goal:
In years past, Nicolás González completely missing a gorgeous lobbed pass only for it to go in anyway would be a perfect symbol of Argentina’s failure to build a coherent attack outside of Messi, but this isn’t 2018. Messi has options now, and that González was even in the box at that exact moment—watch where he starts his run once Messi is in position to pass—is enough of a bonus to excuse his complete whiff of the ball.
No one better represents the options at Argentina’s disposal right now better than Rodrigo De Paul. Though the Atlético Madrid man hasn’t been world class (yet) in Spain, he has a case for being the second best outfield player during Argentina’s dominant run. De Paul was back at it again against Uruguay, controlling the midfield, slotting a loose ball in the box for Argentina’s second, and then whipping a perfect low cross for Lautaro Martínez ‘s 62nd minute goal that shut the door for good.
I haven’t even mentioned Giovani Lo Celso, who was wonderful in a free role that club manager Nuno Espírito Santo would be wise to copy in Tottenham. There’s a lot of attacking talent on this team, and when all of those players are humming, it’s terrifying to watch. Argentina could have scored five or six goals in a walloping second half, if not for Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera’s excellent performance.
Perhaps more importantly for the long-term success of Argentina as it crosses the halfway line in CONMEBOL qualifying. though, is that the defense finally feels elite. Emi Martínez has a lot to do with that. The Aston Villa man has improved his reputation this year more than perhaps anyone in the sport. It also helps that Argentina finally has a world-class center back in Tottenham’s new signing Cristian Romero. If De Paul was the best player on the field outside of Messi, then Romero was a close second, cleaning up waves of Uruguayan attacks and helping to build out from the back. It’s not the most exciting of roles, but it might be what helps Argentina keep rolling to a date with the late rounds of the 2022 World Cup.
Credit also has to go to Lionel Scaloni, the first truly excellent international manager that Argentina has had in Messi’s tenure on the team. Scaloni’s approach is to maximize his attacking firepower—something Argentina has always had—while trusting Romero and Emi Martínez to shore up any defensive deficiencies. At the end of the match, with Argentina already up 3–0, Scaloni still had four attackers on the field alongside two center midfielders who no one would confuse for defensive stalwarts.
It didn’t matter, and it won’t matter as long as this team, so often top-heavy, can remain as balanced as it was on Sunday. Argentina can simply steamroll everyone in its path and trust, for once, that it won’t be fighting for its life on defense. There might not be a better side going right now thanks to that rather recent development, and that should strike fear in the hearts of other national teams. That includes even the ever-indomitable Brazil, who will travel to Argentina on November 16 for what could be the best match of the entire World Cup qualifying cycle. One thing is clear a month out from that clash: Argentina has never been more prepared for a match against its rivals than it is right now.