Lionel Scaloni has turned Argentina into a well-oiled, winning machine

Published on: 10 July 2024

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- Argentina entered the tournament as reigning Copa América and World Cup champions, with nothing left to prove -- just another trophy to play for.

Lionel Messi no longer yearns for the validation of his country or feels the burden of achieving success after captaining La Albiceleste to back-to-back titles in 2021 and 2022. Ángel Di María, who once received criticism for his lack of accomplishments with the national team, now proudly boasts a third star on the Argentina crest that he helped attain.

Key figures Emiliano Martínez, Lisandro Martínez, Lautaro Martínez and Rodrigo De Paul also walk onto the field fueled with confidence from adoring supporters.

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Now, without the need for acceptance and pressure to lift silverware, Argentina have returned to the Copa América final for the second consecutive time after triumphing against Canada 2-0 at MetLife Stadium on Tuesday. So, what continuously drives this team to victory?

Manager Lionel Scaloni has allowed players to feel proud of previous accomplishments and bask in the glory of the current state of Argentinian triumph. But, once the 2024 tournament started, he quickly imposed a sense of humility to avoid arrogance and overconfidence when approaching the new set of challenges that the competition presents. Competing as presiding champions comes with a unique demand, but Scaloni's winning mentality continues to motivate this team to new heights and elevated expectations. One way or another, La Albiceleste finds a way to succeed under his management.

"We are clear about the path to follow. It is not easy to compete again after winning it all. About results, the winner isn't always the one who does the best things. No one can lower their guard," Scaloni said in March.

According to the coach, the goal, no matter how it's achieved, is to win. And players made that mentality apparent once again against Canada in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The North American opponents began the match stronger, pressing high to invade Argentina's half and be an inconvenience to defenders. The team recorded two shots in the first 10 minutes, before La Albiceleste could reach goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau.

But, as expected by Scaloni, Argentina found a way to break through. Julián Álvarez broke the deadlock in the first half, capitalizing on a through-ball from De Paul before completing a right-footed strike into the net. Messi then doubled Argentina's tally in the second 45, scoring his first goal of the tournament when grazing the ball off Enzo Fernández's attempt at goal.

De Paul couldn't get onto the scoresheet, but his 63 touches throughout the match proved vital in the team's constant build up. Cristian Romero contributed by winning 3/3 ground duels and 1/1 aerial duels, demonstrating every detail matters. But still, Argentina didn't convincingly dominate.

Canada completed nine shots and two on target, as Ismaël Koné and Jacob Shaffelburg ran freely inside Argentina's half. Jesse Marsch's side even clawed its way into the box in the final moments of the match, forcing Emiliano Martinez to make an excellent foot-save in the 89th minute.

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The 2-0 final score may be deceiving and convince supporters that Marsch's team failed to compete, when in reality Argentina concluded the match with just two more shots and 51% possession. Canada challenged, but La Albiceleste's confidence and conquering mentality proved to be the difference.

Argentina maneuvered the group stage tournament in a similar manner with 2-0 and 1-0 score-lines, winning difficult games with hard-fought performances before almost seeing an early exit against Ecuador. The quarterfinal opponents kicked off stronger, managing three shots and one on goal despite retaining 36% possession. In comparison, Argentina recorded zero shots in the first 24 minutes and resorted to goalkeeper Martinez to stay in the match. Argentina failed to outshine Ecuador, allowing a last-minute equalizer by Kevin Rodríguez to force the game into a penalty shootout. But La Albiceleste refused to crumble under the disappointment of losing the lead, instead returning to the pitch with a greater purpose.

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Martinez epitomized the winning mentality that Scaloni continues to instill in this team by boasting an impressive confidence and attacking every penalty in an aggressive manner. The quality of the regular-time performance became irrelevant after players proved that Argentina would find a way to prevail by any means necessary.

Fans and media criticized Argentina for a lack of extraordinarily dominant results throughout the tournament, using Colombia's 5-0 triumph over Panama or 3-0 against Costa Rica as examples, but Scaloni's Argentina remain unfazed.

"No, I don't think we need to have that [standout] game, we are playing according to the opponents and competing. We can play better or worse but we're playing to the level of this tournament," Scaloni said. "We are playing the game needed to compete."

And so, the mentality indoctrinated to La Albiceleste by Scaloni becomes more evident with each passing game, as players find a way to secure a ticket to the next round by any means necessary. The team's unwavering dedication to this mentality drove the 2021 Copa América title and 2022 FIFA World Cup trophy. Now, the approach to pressure and stress may be different, but this team continues to play with one goal: winning.

Argentina now prepares to compete in the 2024 Copa América final for the second consecutive time, against an undetermined rival. Many wonder if Uruguay or Colombia will pose a greater challenge in the last game of the tournament, but the opponent ceases to matter with the mindset La Albiceleste employs.

"Football is this: trying things even when they don't go your way. This team will never stop trying," Scaloni said after Tuesday's win.

It's a philosophy that is clear under the Argentina boss. Every individual on the 26-player roster vows to play their part on and off the field.