Luck brings Argentina to the brink
That's the thing about Argentina.
No country has produced more legitimate top 10 A-listers, guys who could arguably describe themselves -- at one time or another -- as the greatest ever without being laughed out of the room.
And yet, the birthplace of Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Armando Maradona and Lionel Messi has yielded just two World Cups. Both were tight, see-saw affairs, marked by controversy and recrimination. In 1978, you had the defeat to Italy, the infamous 6-0 against Peru, the extra-time final under Jorge Videla's watchful eyes. In 1986, of course, you had La Mano de Dios, the slugfest against Uruguay and the last-gasp heroics against Germany.
For whatever reason, it's rarely straight-forward for La Albiceleste. History is littered with what-might-have beens, self-immolations and officiating slights, real or imagined.
2010? Maradona's lemming-like tactics.
2006? Jose Pekerman's crew squandering that lead over Germany.
1994? Maradona's failed drug test.
1990? The highly dubious penalty won by Rudi Voller in the battle royale at the Stadio Olimpico.
1966? A screw-job of Bret Hart proportions -- at least in the Argentine verison of events -- with the sending off of Antonio Rattin and Geoff Hurst scoring an offside goal in the quarterfinal.
1930? Luis Monti having to play despite death threats and letting a 2-1 lead in the final slip.
And then there's 1946 and 1950. The first wasn't held because of the war, the second saw the Argentine FA withdraw following a dispute with the host FA, Brazil. In a parallel Albiceleste reading, you could chalk those up as two more World Cup wins that never were. Why? Because Argentina could have called upon the full force of "La Maquina" -- the machine -- the terrifying River Plate backbone which included the likes of Pipo Rossi, Adolfo Pedernera and Angel Labruna, plus the young upstart, Di Stefano.
OK, so maybe they wouldn't have won all eight of those World Cups. How about half? Yes, four? That would mean they'd be at six, one more than Brazil. They have ground to make up. No better place to start than Sunday against Germany.
All right, so the above is in jest. Somewhat. Yet there is no denying that, over the years, few nations have come up short as often in relation to their talent as Argentina has, usually in controversial or avoidable circumstances. The result has been almost a sense of entitlement, a belief that Lady Luck owes you one or, indeed, a couple. Equally, there's the belief, especially with this team, that as long as you keep it close, something will break your way.
That's how Alejandro Sabella has played it throughout the tournament. Every game has been a slog, nothing has come easy. Bosnia gave them fits, before a magical Messi goal put the game to bed. Iran held on until stoppage time before someone -- yep, Messi -- conjured up a winner out of thin air. Nigeria fell 3-2, with Messi scoring twice. Switzerland took them all the way to extra-time, before Messi set up Angel Di Maria's goal, two minutes before spot-kicks. A deflection, after some buildup play by Messi, set up Gonzalo Higuain's strike, the lone goal in the Belgium quarterfinal. Against the Dutch in the semi, Messi didn't score, which may explain why it went all the way to penalty kicks.
Seen a lot of Messi in the previous paragraph?
Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi. Messi.
Don't be surprised. This team plays for Messi and is built around him like few others in recent history.
It doesn't mean that it's a one-man team. Just that it plays like one.
Sabella goes safety-first most of the time. Of the two full-backs, Marcos Rojo is given a bit of latitude to attack, but Pablo Zabaleta sits at right-back and keeps the centre-backs company. So too does Javier Mascherano, the emotional leader of this team, clogging the passing lines in front of the back four with charisma and guile, like a middle linebacker in the NFL. Next to Mascherano, a designated passer like Lucas Biglia or Fernando Gago. The third midfielder -- Di Maria until his injury, now Enzo Perez -- does have licence to run with the ball and join the attack, though when this happens Ezequiel Lavezzi often tracks back to play the counterweight. This leaves Higuain at centre forward and Messi, who does as he pleases.
In a perfect world, Sabella, who has been in the job for nearly three years, would have built and blended a team that has a multiplier effect on the talent in the side. (And, make no mistake about it, there are plenty gifted players here not named Lionel.) But, partly by choice and partly because of injuries (Di Maria is gone, Sergio Aguero is available again but unfit, Higuain doesn't look himself) the side he created has a multiplier effect on just one man: Messi.
It's not ideal and often -- except when turns up -- it's ugly, too. As ugly as Rodrigo Palacio's header and Maxi Rodriguez's finishes, the two chances squandered in extra-time against the Dutch. Sabella however can cite three exhibits in his defence.
Exhibit A: It's ugly because every opponent they've played has sat deep against them, except for Belgium and Nigeria and it's no coincidence that those were Argentina's two best performances offensively. When you're a team built to counter and exploit space, if you don't get an early goal or your opponent is happy to park the bus, you won't be pretty to watch.
Exhibit B: Messi. It's easy for others to say that Argentina should play more like a team instead of catering to one man. They don't have the best player in the world at their disposal. If they did, odds are, they'd be doing exactly what Sabella is doing.
Exhibit C: We're in the final, something no Argentina side has done since 1990. Indeed, no Albiceleste team until this one even reached the semis since then. And while the road to the Maracana has been rocky and potholed, you can't point to any single Argentina game and argue they weren't the more deserving side. Plus, it's not just a World Cup final. It's at the Maracana. Where Argentina should have been back in 1950, when they should have been the ones inflicting the Maracanazo on the Selecao, not their little neighbour Uruguay.
So don't blame Sabella for doing what he's doing. He got them this far and if a dose of good fortune played a part -- and it's not clear that they've been any luckier than other teams -- so be it: Lady Luck owes them. All that matters is upsetting the Germans on the spot where they should have stood 64 years ago and taking the World Cup back to Buenos Aires.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.