Argentina gave its all, and came close to victory, but ultimately a brave performance was not quite enough as Peru stormed through to take the glory in agonising fashion. But enough about that thrilling quarter-final clash in the delightfully quirky Balloon World Cup, which became a social media sensation on Thursday thanks to an inspired promotional effort from the dream team of Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué and Twitch superstar Ibai Llanos, and on to the evening’s main event in the Estadio Monumental.
The hosts arrived to their latest World Cup qualifier absolutely brimming with confidence, having dispatched Uruguay with almost historic ease in their previous trip to Núñez at the weekend. But where their Rioplatense rivals were naïve – to such an extent that they provoked a minor national outrage on their return to Montevideo after failing to pick up even one yellow card – in letting Lionel Messi & Co strut their stuff, Peru were far more savvy, chopping down the Paris Saint-Germain star and his cohorts at every available opportunity and happily accepting the inevitable bookings that followed in return for breaking up the rhythm of the game.
They could not disrupt the Scaloneta on every occasion, though. Just before half-time Argentina’s man of the moment, Rodrigo de Paul, released Nahuel Molina down the right wing and the Udinese player’s cross found the head of Lautaro Martínez, who cannoned the ball past Pedro Gallese to open the scoring. It was the Albiceleste‘s first real clear-cut chance of the evening, despite having threatened early on, and turned the visitor’s game-plan on its head having held out for just over 40 minutes.
If this Argentina team has one great virtue, and there are plenty to choose from, it is the unshakeable self-belief that courses through its veins. Going 25 games unbeaten and holding a Copa América trophy helps that confidence, naturally, but much of it also comes from the spirit shared by a team which has blossomed as a collective over the past two years.
For that reason, when Peru were awarded a penalty midway through the second half it seemed inevitable that it would not escape past Emiliano Martínez, who had already pulled off a couple of fine saves to add to his magnificent shift against Uruguay. The goalkeeper now glares out, wild-eyed and defiant from a new mural at the AFA’s training facilities in Ezeiza, and he only had to watch as Yoshimar Yotún’s spot-kick hit the bar and flew out of play. The fact that a veteran like Jefferson Farfán was able to hit the throttle and leave Argentina’s defence in the dust should provide at least a little concern, but the overall feeling is that this is a team which can weather whatever is thrown at them, and waltz down the other end and make their opponents hurt.
Yotún’s fluffed spot-kick and a disallowed Argentine goal was about as good as it got in a second half far more tense and tetchy than the previous 45 minutes, but ultimately Scaloni’s men were good value for their 1-0 victory in front of an adoring Monumental crowd. The win, plus a few favourable results elsewhere on Thursday and an expected three points likely to arrive at the end of the month from the aborted Brazil clash in September, should put the Albiceleste into Qatar beyond any shadow of a doubt, even if they have to wait a little while longer to make that a mathematical certainty.
For now, at least, the thousands who packed into River’s home ground for the third consecutive match were once again left fully satisfied by this immensely popular Selección, with the feeling firmly intact that they can take on and beat anyone who stands in their way.