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Improving Argentina are best so far

In one of the rare moments of Alex Sabella's news conference when he wasn't remonstrating with his country's media, the Argentina manager offered a measured and rather magnanimous critique. He was asked about Spain, and the unexpectedly dismal demise of the defending champions.

"Not everything lasts forever," Sabella said. "Don't forget that team has made history, history in terms of the results and history in terms of the style of play.

"Their greatness should be recognised."

Perhaps the greatest effect of Spain's elimination, however, is that it's extremely difficult to recognise the consequent benchmark or likely successor. It is rather striking when you properly consider it.

For the first time since 2006, there is no longer a set standard to meet; there is no longer a guarantee that at least one team will perform to an exceptionally high level. Someone else can actually win a major tournament. The tyranny of Spain's technical game is over. After eight years in which their possession style left so little margin for error in any given match, the field is wide open.

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It is a feeling that only grows when you consider the qualities of the main candidates. All are very far from perfect. Brazil have a minimal amount of stardust and are stuttering along. Germany saw everything go in their favour against Portugal, so need to still prove the flaws of previous tournaments do not affect them. Italy were awful against Costa Rica, meanwhile, and France still need to show their admittedly sensational football can go beyond a weak group.

Then there is Argentina. Very little about their opening win over Bosnia-Herzegovina was convincing other than the 2-1 score line. It has led to a surprising amount of controversy in the country's media. Although the team did eventually come to life in the second half, even that only raised questions about their greatest player, Leo Messi. It has since emerged that the Barcelona playmaker led a group of players in asking Sabella to switch from a restrictive 5-3-2 at half-time, further underlining the arguments that he is developing an overbearing influence in this squad.

And yet, there is also an argument that all of that could make Argentina the most formidable side in the tournament. If it would be a stretch to say it's a potential case of creativity coming out of conflict, the different angles could give the side alternate dimensions that only add to their attacking brilliance. Certainly, Sabella went some way to displaying that they are no longer a side incapable of a defensive response, even if that did end up causing some debate.

For his part, the manager stridently denied that there was any issue in the camp, or with Messi. He did acknowledge they are not at optimum.

"We don't have problems of any type," Sabella said. "We have to improve and that's it, that's our job."

Argentina kicked off their 2014 World Cup campaign with three points versus Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Argentina kicked off their 2014 World Cup campaign with three points versus Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The danger for everyone else is that they are still so threatening even without those improvements. It shouldn't be forgotten that Bosnia-Herzegovina are a fine side, and Argentina still opened them up an awful lot. It was an argument Iran manager Carlos Queiroz was keen to make ahead of their faceoff in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Saturday, which is pointed given that he is one of the finest defensive coaches in the competition.

"Argentina is one team that, at any moment, they look like they aren't playing good football and, when you wake up, they score two goals against you.

"And the press saying they aren't playing good football?"

Sabella was meanwhile rather dismissive of that same press, and any suggestions that there is discontentment with him or issues with Messi.

"I was not hurt by Leo's comments and he'd already said it before," the manager said. "It didn't bother me at all and the atmosphere of the group is perfect.

Argentina is one team that, at any moment, they look like they aren't playing good football and, when you wake up, they score two goals against you.

"I fully trust my players from a human and professional standpoint and they trust me. We have a very strong group spirit in the team and I'm not hurt by what he says. I discuss football with my players. It's good to have an open dialogue because we can learn from each other.

"We don't look for enemies outside, otherwise we'd always be looking behind our backs," he said. "We have other important things to fix."

He fixed the first game.

"The match I anticipated didn't happen," Sabella said. "The game was tight, we were only 1-0 up, that's always a slim lead. We needed something else, to change something to get better, because we weren't putting in a good game."

That open-mindedness evidently extends to his system. For all the talk that it will be dependent on Messi's wants, Sabella was rather strident.

Lionel Messi celebrates in Argentina's win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Lionel Messi celebrates in Argentina's win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The system is 4-3-3, but I don't close any door. If we have to change, we will change. If you don't criticise yourself, people say you're stubborn. If you do, they say you're weak. I think about what's best for the group, and not about anything else."

It could also be all the better for the group. To put it rather starkly, oppositions will struggle to second-guess Argentina's approach. Then there is the difficulty in predicting anything that Messi will do. Try it, and he'll make you look a fool. As the finest player in the world, he remains the one individual in this tournament capable of deeply influencing the destination of the trophy through his own individual performances.

He seized the opening game. That, at the very least, fully reflected one of his manager's views.

"It's about an attitude to life, as much as football," Sabella said, "to grab it by the scruff straightaway, and give 100 percent."

It could mean holding this trophy by the very end.

Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.