10 July 2014 01:48
A global superstar, an unlikely defensive hero and a tight-knit squad have helped Argentina to a first FIFA World Cup final for 24 years.
The South Americans had to do things the hard way, as they edged through 4-2 on penalties after 120 goalless minutes against Netherlands in Wednesday’s second semi-final.
They will now meet Germany in Rio on Sunday, but what is the secret of their success at Brazil 2014?
Sabella ditching 5-3-2
Argentina’s dominance of the ever-gruelling CONMEBOL qualifying section came with coach Alejandro Sabella largely employing a 4-3-3 formation, drawing plenty from deep reserves of attacking talent. But Sabella has often favoured a conservative 5-3-2 during his career in club management and he reverted to type during the first half of Argentina’s tournament opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Rio. Despite an early own goal from Sead Kolasinac putting the South Americans ahead, the massed ranks of Argentina fans were treated to 45 turgid minutes. To his credit, Sabella recognised the error of his ways, restored 4-3-3 and Argentina were up and running – allowing their superstar to come to the party on football’s biggest stage.
When Lionel Messi raced off in celebration having scored at the end of a trademark dribble against Bosnia, it meant much more than a two-goal lead. The 21st Century’s outstanding player has justifiable claims to be held in the same esteem as the great untouchables – Pele and Diego Maradona. But those men boast four World Cups and five finals between them. In contrast, Messi had a solitary goal to show for his efforts across eight appearance in the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. Criticism of a player seen as more Catalan than Argentinian among sections of the national support were uncomfortably familiar. But he starred in qualifying this time around and the solo goal versus Bosnia was followed by a sensational last-minute winner to sink Iran and a brace against Nigeria. Messi’s thirst to match Maradona’s 1986 triumph is the most dangerous part of Argentina’s weaponry and he will be keen to turn around a slightly faded influence during the knockout stages. Germany should not bank on the little magician being as anonymous on Sunday as he was against Netherlands.
Martin Demichelis’ introduction in defence
When Messi tumbled to the Etihad Stadium turf and turned to see countryman Martin Demichelis sent off for a professional foul in a February UEFA Champions League tie for club Barcelona against Manchester City, he could scarcely have anticipated a FIFA World Cup campaign alongside the experienced defender. That red card bundled Manchester City towards the exit door in Europe’s premier club competition and marked the nadir of a testing first campaign in England for Demichelis. However, the 33-year-old dusted himself down and was an unerring presence over the closing two months of the campaign, as City hauled in Liverpool to win the Premier League title. Despite not making a competitive international appearance since November 2011, Demichelis was rewarded with a place in Argentina’s 23-man squad for Brazil. Again, he had to wait to show his worth, but Demichelis came in at centre-back for the quarter-final against Belgium. His aerial prowess and tidy passing gave a previously nervy backline an assured look. Goalkeeper Sergio Romero barely had a shot to save in two subsequent clean sheets.
Having failed to fire regularly in previous tournaments for his country, Messi’s star turn in the group stages brought with it accusations for Argentina of being a one-man-team that are grimly familiar to most sides blessed with a precocious talent. But in the latter stages of the World Cup, they have proven themselves to be a team and squad of substance. Angel di Maria crowned the finest season of his career at club level with Real Madrid by netting a nerveless extra-time winner against Switzerland, Gonzalo Higuain shrugged off wretched form to sink Belgium and Romero – Monaco’s second-choice goalkeeper last season and a man viewed in some quarters as a pre-tournament weak link – repelled Netherlands amid the pressure cooker of a semi-final shoot-out. On Wednesday, Benfica’s Enzo Perez deputised ably for the injured Di Maria, striker Sergio Aguero returned in extra time and defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano performed heroically throughout. Germany must now stop more men than Messi.