The scorelines 2-1, 1-0, 3-2, 1-0, 1-0, 0-0 — these are hardly the results of world beaters especially when the opposition includes Iran (ranked 43rd in the FIFA ranking), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria and Switzerland. However, “world beaters” is exactly what Argentina will be if they get past a Germany team whose morale is sky-high after their annihilation of hosts Brazil.
Although La Albiceleste have failed to win a match by more than one goal in Brazil, they have rarely looked like surrendering any lead that they had. Whilst Lionel Messi’s heroics were rightly being seen as their strong point in the group stages, many pundits are now looking at Mascherano and their defensive unit as being key to any success achieved at the Maracana Stadium.
Goalkeeper Sergio Romero was seen as their weak link prior to the start of the World Cup but his month in Brazil has helped to enhance his reputation tremendously. He’s still to concede a goal in the knockout stages and made crucial saves against Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder in the penalty shootout against the Netherlands. Weak link indeed!
On the other hand, Lionel Messi’s last goal came in the group stages during which he netted four goals. Nevertheless, his assist to Angel di Maria against Switzerland after a mazy run down the center of the opposition defense was instrumental in helping his country progress in Brazil. Against Belgium, he put in another dazzling display a few days later. Defenders are tending to crowd out Argentina’s number 10, leaving a bit more space to his attacking colleagues to try and pounce on any ball close to or inside the penalty area, as seen by Higuain’s strike against Belgium. The number 9 was not marked properly as Vincent Kompany and teammates focused on Messi’s trademark run and he took full advantage.
Alejandro Sabella’s team’s main advantage was Diego Maradona’s most obvious weak spot in South Africa 2010. Maradona was far from being a tactical genius and playing winger Jonas Gutierrez at right-back, expecting an aging Juan Sebastian Veron to dictate play in midfield and selecting Nicolas Otamendi in his squad just because he dreamt he saw the defender lifting the World Cup Trophy were hardly inspiring decisions. Current center backs Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernandez and Martin Demichelis (fresh from a solid season for Manchester City) are proving to be a significant upgrade on Gabriel Heinze, Nicolas Burdisso, Otamendi and an injury-ravaged Walter Samuel.
In their first game against Bosnia, Argentina lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, mostly due to Gonzalo Higuain’s lack of fitness. The players were clearly uncomfortable in such a set up with Maxi Rodriguez and Angel di Maria struggling to dominate midfield alongside Javier Mascherano. A shift to 4-3-3 in half-time and dropping Maxi Rodriguez for Fernando Gago and Lucas Biglia in later games has helped to achieve a good balance in midfield. Javier Mascherano is the destroyer, Fernando Gago or Lucas Biglia act as the supporting cast helping to keep things ticking in midfield, whilst di Maria was the link between the front three and the players behind them.
After di Maria’s injury against Belgium, Benfica’s Enzo Perez has taken up his role with limited success. Against Germany in 2010, Maradona’s midfield trio were di Maria, Mascherano and Maxi Rodriguez, so not much has changed in personnel. However, the decision to play Biglia or Gago who are able to maintain a better balance than Maxi Rodriguez has been decisive. Moreover, di Maria’s recent experience playing in a central role for Real Madrid has given give vital experience in a tricky area of the pitch. Whilst he may now be injured, his performances earlier in the tournament helped instill the necessary confidence in his midfield team-mates that they’re able to dominate games.
Argentina fans will be the first to admit that their team has been very far from inspiring in the current World Cup but at the end of the day, they are the ones lining up in the Maracana on Sunday. In 2010, Spain won all of their knockout matches 1-0 but were considered to be one of the best, if not the best, teams in the modern era. Moreover, they lost their first game against Switzerland!
Italy only managed to get three draws in the group stage in 1982 whilst in 1998 France achieved 1-0, 0-0, 1-0 results in the three games before the final against Brazil. Again, hardly the stuff of world beaters but that’s exactly what such teams are now considered to be. World Cup winners…world beaters! Moreover, players like Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Paolo Rossi and Marco Tardelli are seen as legends of the game…can Javier Mascherano, Sergio Romero, Pablo Zabaleta and Lionel Messi end up being considered in the same vein? We’ll soon know.