Sunday, April 21, 2019

Manchester City v Chelsea: Aguero set to burnish reputation in England amid Argentine indifference

SoccerNews in English Premier League 24 Feb 2019

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The last time Sergio Aguero faced Chelsea at Wembley, he brought up 200 goals for Manchester City and netted a brace in August’s 2-0 Community Shield win. He played them two weeks ago and scored a superb hat-trick in a 6-0 demolition.

When Aguero prepares for the big occasions with City, such as Sunday’s EFL Cup final versus Maurizio Sarri’s embattled team, there is a sense of expectation that skirts close to inevitability. The club’s all-time record goalscorer has 43 in 64 Premier League appearances versus the ‘big six’.

The Chelsea treble was his 11th hat-trick in the division – the joint best alongside ex-England captain Alan Shearer, who labelled Aguero the Premier League’s finest import earlier this season.

As he pursues a seventh major honour with City this weekend, there is a weight of numbers and achievements to back up his case. However, the arch poacher, who turns 31 next year, stands apart from most other players in this conversation.

The likes of Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Peter Schmeichel, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Aguero’s City team-mate David Silva are similarly lauded in their homelands – heroes to their native football public.

For Aguero, part of an Argentina generation that promised so much but has delivered so little, it is a different story.

Youthful promise tripped up by final hurdles

“I don’t think he is unpopular with the Argentine fans, I think he’s ignored,” said German Esmerado, Omnisport’s chief editor in Latin America. “He doesn’t carry with the same weight of the failures that Messi, [Javier] Mascherano or [Gonzalo] Higuain do.”

Aguero sits among a golden generation led by the great Lionel Messi that has flattered to deceive.

He starred alongside Angel Di Maria as Argentina retained the Under-20 World Cup in 2007, finishing the competition as top scorer before notching a vital brace in the 3-0 semi-final win over Brazil at Beijing 2008.

Argentina subsequently made it back-to-back Olympic titles, with Di Maria scoring the only goal against Nigeria in the gold-medal game, but that sureness in the clutch moments has deserted a lavishly gifted group on the biggest stages in senior football.

“Back in 2012-13, Aguero, Higuain, Di Maria and Messi were idols of the national team,” explained Santi Bauza, an Argentinian contributor to Copa90 and a fan of Independiente – the Buenos Aires club where Aguero made his breakthrough and is still revered.

“They were called the ‘Fantastic Four’ by the media because they gelled so well in those years for the national team. They scored a tonne of goals in the qualifiers.

“If I have to pinpoint the moment in which esteem for Aguero really fell off it has to be after the 2014 World Cup, I guess.”

The dream began to turn sour in Brazil, even though Argentina came agonisingly close to their finest hour. Germany denied them glory at the Maracana – the stadium most synonymous with their bitterest rivals – with a 1-0 extra time win.

Aguero came off the bench, unable to impact the game as the fitness struggles he sustained during a triumphant 2013-14 with City lingered.

He has two goals in 12 appearances across three World Cups and did not find the net at all during qualification for Russia 2018. Remarkably, considering his record in high-stakes club games  and the title-clinching moment that will forever define his City career, Aguero is not viewed as a man who can be depended upon to score important goals for Argentina.

In the shadow of Messi

This is a conclusion reached after a close friendship with Messi off the field failed to blossom on it.

“I think that the figure of Messi has eclipsed and at times dwarfed his team-mates, who didn’t know how to be up to the task of playing with him,” Esmerado said. “Especially his attacking partners like Higuaín and Aguero.”

Higuain’s finishing woes came to be a symbol of falling short at the final hurdle as the 2015 Copa America and centenary tournament the following year ended in penalty shoot-out defeats to Chile.

Aguero scored in the latter shoot-out having been substituted in the initial final encounter and Argentina’s propensity to chop and change amid an embarrassment of riches at number nine has not helped.

He broke the deadlock in the ultimately humiliating 1-1 draw against Iceland at last year’s World Cup. By the time he headed home in the 4-3 last-16 loss to France, Aguero was a substitute again – hurled on as a last throw of the dice.

Following Jorge Sampaoli’s departure in ignominy post-Russia, successor Lionel Scaloni has looked to the future. Aguero has not made a squad.

Back to Brazil for Copa America redemption?

The next three months might see Aguero’s outstrip all of his previous achievements with City as they chase trophies on four fronts. But he might await Scaloni’s squad announcement for the March friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco with interest and trepidation.

That will offer a strong indication over whether the one-time teenage darling of Argentinian football features in the coach’s plans for the 2020 Copa America – a chance to restake his claim for affection in his homeland, where a national team packed with European-based millionaires has earned apathy through failure.

“Perhaps just winning the Copa America wouldn’t be enough,” Bauza concedes, while pointing out the strength of hosts Brazil ahead of this year’s tournament. “Fans would still demand for Aguero to deliver in another World Cup if he makes it.

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