Sabella proving his critics wrong
BRASILIA, Brazil -- After Argentina's latest triumph -- beating Belgium 1-0 on Saturday and qualifying for the semifinals of the World Cup -- we can be certain of one thing: Alejandro Sabella made the right lineup choice, and it paid off for him.
Considering the criticisms of his lineup making three changes, including replacing Fernando Gago, who many consider undroppable, the coach's decisions panned out and displayed his authority on the team.
Sabella stuck to his instincts. If he was going to lose, at least he wasn't going to spend a sleepless night because he knows that it was done his way. He made it clear that nobody would influence him on how his team should be formed. He went against the age old advice of not making major changes.
The coach took out Federico Fernández, a player who had always worked well for him in the past yet whose place on the team has been questioned of late. Likewise, Gago was cut despite once being Lionel Messi's right-hand man. Totally logical variations. The introduction of Martin Demichelis and Lucas Biglia created a more solid defensive formation.
Of course, there will be no lack of people pointing out flaws with the victory and claiming that Belgium isn't a major opponent. One thing we can be certain of is that Marc Wilmots' team tested Sergio Romero only once during the entire game.
This fact is thanks to the hard work of those responsible for preventing Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas and the rest of Belgium from having quality chances. However, Argentina still have problems defending aerial chances.
Despite winning with minimal damage, the Argentine squad has to convince its critics. There is a belief that this team is capable of much more.
The team stands out in terms of its organization, ability to keep calm under pressure and knowledge of how to use the advantages given to it.
For the first time in this competition, the coach preferred to take a back seat and allowed the opponent to take the initiative, looking for the opportunity to cause damage on the counterattack.
What occurred on the field was just what had been planned. Despite Argentina having the advantage in ball possession 51 to 49, the optical illusion made it appear more like 70-30 in favor of Belgium.
Nevertheless, the team still lacked the ability to create clear chances. It shot 10 times, of which seven were on target. The most promising was Angel Di María (three shots, all on target), who managed only 33 minutes of the game due to an injury.
As for Messi, he had two opportunities. In his second attempt, the forward was one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois, who managed to narrowly avoid the score becoming 2-0.
Worse still was Belgium's attempts. They also shot 10 times, but only four were on target.
In this game, the main man for attack was Gonzalo Higuaín.
The striker positioned himself in an excellent spot to score. Eight minutes in, he got on the end of a deflected ball that bounced into his path, and with a right-footed half volley he crossed the ball. It was an excellent strike for Argentina's No. 9.
He did what had been expected of him, and for the first time in this Brazilian tournament, he was heard shouting in celebration. He worked well occupying spaces in the midfield when the team needed to drop back, and he received a much deserved ovation as he was subbed for Gago. Yet another clear tactical move from the coach, who was looking to hold the lead for the final 10 minutes. It all went as planned.
The only negative from the game is Di Maria's muscle injury. He left the mixed zone without commenting and with a worried look on his face. The squad does not have another player with the same characteristics of his dynamics, his height and that powerful shot.
One player to be noted from Saturday's game is Enzo Pérez, a 28-year-old midfielder and one of Sabella's greatest gambles, which has paid off brilliantly. But who will accompany Messi in the absence of "Fideo"? And what of the left wing? Is there any point in insisting on Ezequiel Lavezzi?
Once again, the result overshadows the performance on the field.
With no less than what we have already mentioned, Argentina have managed to break the 24-year curse of not making the semifinal, a heavy burden of which the players have been freed from. Without this hanging over their heads, perhaps they will be able to let themselves go and really amaze us with their football.
They face the Netherlands on Wednesday in Sao Paulo. Should the Dutch play as they did against Costa Rica, there is the possibility that Van Gaal's men will close up and play more like Switzerland rather than Belgium. If this is the case, Argentina will have to do a bit more than just rely on their captain.
One thing to take away from it all is that of a tournament with seven matches, Argentina has won five. That is no easy feat. Meanwhile, Sabella goes into the next game confident in the knowledge that he has proved a point. His tactics work.