You are crying since Italy (World Cup 1990) ‘till today! You are going to see Messi!
The World Cup will be ours! And Maradona is greater than Pele!
That’s a rough translation of the last few lines of a song that has been bellowed out by the Albiceleste faithful in Brazilian stadiums during this World Cup. And as Argentina moved into the semi-finals of the tournament after a 1-0 win over Belgium, it’s a chant that’s looking increasingly prophetic.
There’s an aura developing around this Argentinean team. When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, every game finished 1-0 in the knockout phase. Despite La Roja’s supremely technical players and bespoke brand of possession football, it’s often overlooked that their campaign was founded on a diligent defence with the odd bit of stardust from Andres Iniesta and David Villa.
Four years on—while the two sides are in no way stylistically comparable—Alejandro Sabella’s squad seem to be underpinned on the same basic principles. They’re compact, cohesive and right up until their quarter-final clash with Belgium, they were relying on a little bit of magic from Lionel Messi to get them over the line in tight games.
But against Belgium, the little maestro didn’t reach his usual heights. He was clever on the ball and showed the odd glimpse, but he was not at his scintillating best by any means.
Despite that, this collective performance is the one that the Argentinean supporters will take the most positives from. Not just because it means they’re in the semi-final—that goes without saying—but because at long last, some the supporting cast wrestled the spotlight away Messi.
Gonzalo Higuain, a player that’s been on the periphery of this tournament, seized his movement, scoring a fine goal early on.
Angel di Maria, who was largely awful against Switzerland despite his late goal, was excellent in midfield before hobbling off, bamboozling the Red Devils midfield duo of Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel with his wonderful touch and fleet of foot.
But defensively is where they are most impressive ,despite this area being cited as a major weakness by plenty in the build up to this competition. And back line is getting better and better.
Javier Mascherano put in another superb showing at the base of the midfield, showing once again that he is Argentina’s captain in all but name. A little further back, Pablo Zabaleta was typically effervescent at right-back, while Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis were supreme against a physical Belgian forward line.
This was this team’s second consecutive clean sheet and their second consecutive 1-0 win. Make no mistake about it, the Albiceleste are laying the foundations for a tournament winning run. But they’re not quite there yet.
The balance of this team is a little off, especially in the centre of midfield. In the game against Belgium, there were plenty of opportunities for shrewd players to utilise some lateral movement to find space down the sides of Mascherano, who can often be left exposed by the willingness of the two players in front of him to get forward.
You get the impression that while Belgium and Switzerland were unable to make the most of that space afforded to them, a team like the Netherlands—or indeed, Costa Rica!—will do, and it’s something Sabella must address as his team gear up for the semi-finals.
Argentina are crying out for a playmaker to sit next to Mashcerano deep in the midfield and help dictate the tempo of a game, but there’s no player in the squad that’s really capable of doing that job. So Sabella has tasked the Barcelona man with being both destroyer and water-carrier; the latter is something Mascherano struggles with and it can leave him exposed when the game becomes stretched.
Admittedly, with Lucas Biglia sat a little deeper next to him in the quarter-final, the midfield balance looked a little better, but there were still big gaps between the lines when Belgium tried to counter, spaces the Red Devils really should have taken advantage of. Against the Netherlands—should they progress—you can bet the likes of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder will be breaking with superior vigour, and if the Albiceleste don’t close off those gaps then you can bet they will be punished.
Of course, the Argentinean supporters will be delighted will the efforts of this current crop. Diego Maradona called for Messi’s teammates to offer him some more support in the build up to this clash; the players responded with distinction to El Diez’s call.
Now they’re in their first World Cup semi-final in 24 years and that is an achievement in itself. But this team is capable of going all the way. Messi believes it, the fans believe it and at long last, the rest of this Argentina team seem to believe it too.
“The World Cup will be ours!” You certainly wouldn’t back against it.
Watch the video highlights of Argentina vs Belgium here: