Argentina is a nation in dire need of footballing silverware. Not least because of Lionel Messi’s presence in the team, who has repeatedly had to endure the moniker of not being “good enough” at the international level. They have not won a major international trophy since winning back-to-back Copa Americas in 1991 and 1993. Since the turn of the millennium though, it has been one heartbreaking loss after another.
— GOLAZO (@golazoargentino) July 4, 2017
La Albiceleste have picked up six silver medals in the international forum, including a record FOUR final losses in the Copa America alone. The infamous penalty shootout defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016 led to Messi’s short retirement and still haunt the country to this day. The 2019 edition saw Argentina exit at the semi-final stage after a 2-0 defeat to eventual champions Brazil.
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni: "The last World Cup we won was 1986, the last Copa America in 1993. That's a lot of years without a trophy."
Scaloni talks about the upcoming Copa America, experience with Sampaoli at Sevilla and much more. https://t.co/ZerO9CsqJk
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) May 12, 2021
Though they finally managed to vanquish Chile in the third place play-off game, there is a growing feeling among the fans that only winning the 2021 Copa America is the balm to soothe almost 30 years of empty-handedness. They might just be better equipped this time around due to one diminutive playmaker, and his sublime eye for attack.
THEY CALL HIM PAPU
Currently playing for Sevilla, Alejandro “Papu” Gomez is the wrong side of 30s for most pundits, though he is of the same age as Messi. The 33-year-old is one of the most creative players, with an extremely high ability of finding space on the pitch before launching the killer pass. Indeed, his role of playing just behind the main striker in the team allows him to roam freely and pick up possession in order to facilitate dangerous forays in attack at breakneck speed.
Having long been the mascot for Serie A club Atalanta, Papu Gomez finished as the Italian top-flight’s assists leader in both the 2019 and the 2020 seasons. In fact, he set the Serie A record for most assists last year with 16 and even chipped in with seven goals which earned him the ‘Best Midfielder’ prize.
16 – Alejandro #Gómez delivered the most assists in the 2019-20 #SerieA season (16), a record in a single campaign over the past 15 seasons (since Opta started collecting these data in 2004/05). Painter.#OptaTopXI pic.twitter.com/pk3Q50M5G4
— OptaPaolo 🏆 (@OptaPaolo) August 3, 2020
However, a falling out with Atalanta boss Gian Piero Gasperini led to Papu moving to Spain in January this year, joining a very strong Sevilla side.
With Sevilla, he tends to start on the left side of midfield, allowing him to cut inside for delivering crosses and getting to the byline. He is also renowned for his set-piece accuracy and frequently takes on shots from range with success. All of which bodes well for one Lionel Scaloni, former teammate of Papu at Atalanta in 2013.
THE TRUMP CARD?
For Copa America 2019, Scaloni now in charge of Argentina, left out his former teammate which seemed to baffle many. In a weird way, this was in keeping with the trend of the times. Papu had not played for the national team since 2017 when Jorge Sampaoli was in charge. Scaloni had shown no interest in calling up the then-Atalanta man for the Copa but maybe he should have done so.
The official shirt numbers for the Argentina squad at the Copa America. Spoiler: Lionel Messi wearing the number 10. pic.twitter.com/guAfOHCnp9
— Roy Nemer (@RoyNemer) May 30, 2016
Gomez had just finished the regular season with seven goals and a league-leading 11 assists. He seemed the perfect foil to slot in behind either Sergio Aguero or Lautaro Martinez as the linkup man. Without him in the squad, Scaloni played Giovanni Lo Celso or young Udinese man Rodrigo De Paul who were no match to the Atalanta’s man rate of production at club level.
2 – Lionel Scaloni is the first Argentina 🇦🇷 manager to lose his first two meetings with Brazil 🇧🇷 in all competitions since César Luis Menotti in 1975 (L4). Cycle.#CopaAmerica pic.twitter.com/0xKlOdeBYJ
— OptaJavier (@OptaJavier) July 3, 2019
By the time the knockout stage arrived, Scaloni had been playing both his first choice strikers together. Messi slotted in behind which showed Scaloni did not trust his young guns much anymore. Though they won the quarter-final against Venezuela, the shutout against Brazil proved that Argentina needed a robust playmaker in the mold of Papu. His inclusion in the team would have allowed Messi to start as one of the two main strikers up top, giving La Albiceleste much more of a direct threat.
CHANCE TO SHINE
Having played during the last set of international fixtures back in November, Papu looks well set to finally have his chance on the grand stage. With Aguero having lost his starting role at Manchester City through a combination of injuries and poor form, it seems most likely that Scaloni will have to start both Martinez and Messi together.
😎 Papu Gomez scored on his Sevilla debut with his first attempt in La Liga
😯 Gomez registered 20 more touches (66) than any Getafe player despite only playing for 33 minutes.
🔥 WhoScored rating on debut – 8.20 pic.twitter.com/7CO0sqpr4s
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 8, 2021
This plays well into Papu’s hands, for he will be looking to feature on the left hand side of the midfield like he has been doing in Seville. Scaloni has been using the 4-3-3 in big matches and the same is used by Sevilla so Papu will bring with him a lot of experience in that particular role.
Even though there will be a hefty amount of youngsters present again, a veteran like Papu might be just what they need to end their curse of the Copa and hand living legend Messi his first trophy with La Albiceleste.