RIO DE JANEIRO -- Argentina are preparing for their fourth World Cup final with one certainty: the team is at its best since the tournament began.
Alejandro Sabella's squad continuously improved until reaching the equilibrium the coach so desired, starting with the round of 16. From that moment on, after the group stage, Sergio Romero gave up no more goals. The idea is to neutralise the powerful attack of Germany, who just thrashed Brazil, of all teams, 7-1, as Argentina did Belgium and the Netherlands.
In preparation for the much-anticipated match against Joachim Low's squad on Sunday at Maracana, no changes will be made to the lineup of 11 starters in the semifinal against the Netherlands. With such a powerful performance, why change?
Romero, the hero of the shootout at San Pablo, will continue in goal. "Chiquito" is in the running for the tournament's best goalkeeper. There are three of the four classic defenders of Sabella's era: Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay and Marcos Rojo. The latter couldn't finish Friday's practice after being hit, but he will be fine for the game. The first centre-back now is Martin Demichelis, who took Federico Fernandez's place against Belgium.
The formation morphed from the unforgettable 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 configuration, with the possibility of a forward-turned-midfielder joining the attack. There was also the 5-3-2 that lasted only the first 45 minutes of the opening game against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the centre of the field, Javier Mascherano is the icon, the heart, the spark setting the rest aflame. He is one of the candidates for the Golden Ball of Brazil 2014. Lucas Biglia, another starter against Belgium, is his partner in action, replacing Fernando Gago, who lost his position because of his poor performance. Right-winger Enzo Perez put on a good show against the Netherlands and will start again versus Germany. To the left is Ezequiel Lavezzi, the forward with a brand-new responsibility to mark up.
In front are two invincible players. Leo Messi is the captain capable of turning the tide of a game. He is striving for the prize of not just best in the tournament, but for glory and a place of honor among the best in history. And Gonzalo Higuain, who scored the goal against Belgium, is a key part of the formation and the only target man.
Only two players could induce changes in this lineup. They happen to be those who suffered physical problems. Sergio Aguero reappeared in the final minutes of the semifinal and the pace of his game left something to be desired. He will surely be benched for the final. The other is Angel Di Maria, the third Argentinean in the running for the World Cup's Golden Ball, who left the field at the 33-minute mark in the quarterfinal game because of a first-degree injury to his right thigh.
During the closed training session on Friday, journalists were able to observe from a hill the progress of the Real Madrid player, who is now doing speed and reaction drills. Will he be in shape for the final clash at Maracana? All signs point to him being held back to enter late in the final. For whom? We have to wait and see what happens to know. Both Lavezzi and Enzo Perez are versatile enough to play along either touchline.
Sabella's vision is clear. The players understand his message and completely support each other on the field. It is a new and memorable team, with the force of 23 players united to achieve their goal.