Argentina have been labelled as a one-man team well before the start of the World Cup but how true is this? Messi’s critics have long said that his impressive performances for Barcelona are only possible due to the brilliance of the surrounding cast, namely Iniesta, Xavi and co. However, why does this not apply to the South Amercians? Is Lionel Messi really the be-all and end-all for La Albiceleste?
Maradona is said to have won the 1986 World Cup all on his own but would he really have been so successful without the six goals of the two Jorges (Valdano and Burruchaga), the heroics of Nery Pumpido in goal and the defensive solidity of Oscar Ruggeri.
Here is a list of five players in the Argentina’s number 10’s supporting cast who may prove to be an integral in leading La Albiceleste to a third World Cup victory.
Over the past few months, many have been baffled at Alejandro Sabella’s unwavering faith in Romero who spent the past season sitting on the substitutes’ bench in Monaco, whilst the likes of Willy Caballero and Julian Speroni have impressed for their respective clubs but still have failed to get a look in.
Having said that, Argentina now boast of a miserly defense that has still to concede a goal in the knock-out stages and has kept a joint-highest three clean sheets. This is in no small part due to the man between the sticks. Against Iran, Romero made a couple of truly excellent saves to keep the score at 0-0 before Messi produced a moment of magic in the latter stages of the game to grab a victory for the Albiceleste.
In the knockout stages, Chiquito kept Switzerland and Belgium at bay with a couple confident performances that ensured the back four were kept at ease and well-organized.
Even though Zabaleta has so far failed to reproduce his impressive performances for Manchester City in the current World Cup, he has still been very solid in defense and provides decent attacking width. Against Belgium, he committed four tackles, the most of any Argentine player on the field, and covered a distance of about 10 kilometres.
The former Espanyol player is an expert at halting wingers and wingbacks in their tracks and he will surely be kept busy by a Netherlands side that uses the whole width of the pitch and possesses pacey unpredictable wingers (Robben, Depay and Jermain Lens). With whatever tactics Louis van Gaal uses, be sure that Zabaleta will have his hands full. However, his surging runs forward may prove to be vital against a Dutch defense that has performed admirably in this World Cup but still somewhat lacks international experience.
The 30-year old midfield terrier is slowly becoming one of the revelations of this World Cup. Anchoring the midfield alongside Gago or Biglia, the Barcelona man has proved that he is far more suited playing in front of the defense rather than as a centre-back as is the case when he lines up for the Catalans. Apart from being excellent at breaking up the play, Mascherano also excels at delivering the ball from defense to more advanced positions with his admirable passing ability. Against Belgium, he had a 92% pass completion rate.
When facing the Netherlands, he will need to be on his toes to deal with any central runs from the likes of Robben and Memphis Depay whilst also keeping an eye on Wesley Sneijder’s and Georginio Wijnaldum’s threats from midfield.
Claudio Caniggia recently described Mascherano, who was Argentina’s captain four years ago in South Africa, as being a “coach on the pitch”. He’s seen to be continuously giving instructions to his surrounding team mates, which no doubt had contributed greatly to the balance Sabella has managed to achieve. “Balance” is really the buzzword for this Argentina side that has so often lacked it in the past. Mascherano’s role is to remind the players around him that before thinking of glory, a solid foundation in defense and midfield is first needed.
Whoever Replaces Angel di Maria
In 2010 Argentina’s main weakness was obvious, Diego Maradona filled his team with too many offensive players and there wasn’t a proper link between defense and attack. In other words, no balance! In 2014, this missing link has been Angel di Maria, who’s now out of the World Cup due to injury. Whilst Mascherano anchors the midfield and breaks up play, di Maria provided penetrating runs and creativity to link the forward players with their team mates behind.
Finding a suitable replacement will not be an easy task as Argentina lack an obvious like-for-like replacement. The Real Madrid midfielder was immense against Belgium and produced the winning goal against Switzerland despite it being by far his worst game of the tournament.
Enzo Perez, who replaced di Maria against Belgium, may ensure an attacking thrust from midfield whilst Fernando Gago and the experience of Maxi Rodriguez may be considered to be safer options, at least in a conservative sense.
Another option may be Inter Milan’s Ricardo Alvarez who has experience playing in an attacking midfielder role providing the ammunition to the strikers ahead of him for the Italian side. No matter who comes into the team, di Maria’s pace, agility and football intelligence will be sorely missed.
The France-born striker’s first goal in Brazil was the winning strike against Belgium in the quarter-finals. It’s fair to say that Higuain had an uninspiring start to the World Cup, mostly due to his lack of match fitness coming into the tournament. However, against the Belgians, he was a changed man.
After scoring early on, he was a threat throughout the match and also hit the bar after nutmegging Vincent Kompany in a mazy run. He also didn’t shirk from any defensive duties and could be seen numerous times tracking back and giving his team mates a helping hand.
With Lavezzi taking care of the dirty work in attack and Messi’s creativity unlocking defenses, Higuain’s return to the scoreboard couldn’t come at a better time for Sabella whose forward line seems to have all the necessary ingredients to take Argentina to glory. Another goal or two from El Pipita may help pave the way.