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Argentina's defence rises to occasion

SAO PAULO -- Alejandro Sabella faced a high-quality problem when he became Argentina's coach in 2011: how to get Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain on the field at the same time.

Basically, Sabella had two options. He could either sacrifice the defensive balance of his team in order to do it, or he could not do it at all.

It was an easy choice in the end.

With four of the top attacking players on the planet at his disposal, there was no way the coach wasn't going to take his chances, banking that even if his side bled goals, they would always be able to score one more than any opponent.

For the most part, it worked. Heading into the World Cup, the Albiceleste had scored three or more goals 14 times in 34 matches under Sabella, losing just four games along the way.

That track record includes friendlies, however. When results really matter -- and they never matter more than on the sport's grandest stage -- suspect defending gets punished quickly (just ask Brazil). It was little surprise, then, that Argentina's backline was denounced before the tournament as their fatal flaw.

Argentina's defense, lead by Ezequiel Garay, has provided the backbone of the team's success so far.

But a funny thing happened when the games started. Instead of high-scoring shoot-outs with opponents, Argentina's potent offense struggled to find the net, managing just three goals -- two from the incomparable Messi -- in their first two matches.

The trend continued after a 3-2 win over Nigeria in the group stage finale; to reach Wednesday's semifinal here against the Netherlands (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), Argentina relied on 1-0 wins versus Switzerland and Belgium. Meanwhile, in the absence of goals, the defense has exceeded all expectations.

"Football is about balance between defense and attack," Sabella said at Tuesday's prematch news conference. "We are better in the defensive aspect, but we're going to face a very difficult team which is powerful offensively."

Still, doubts about keeper Sergio Romero and left-back Marcos Rojo coming in have been alleviated. Even mistake-prone centre-back Martin Demichelis, a long shot to even make Sabella's squad, unseated Federico Fernandez in the lineup for the quarterfinal and was excellent. Demichelis' partner, the relatively unknown Ezequiel Garay, started all five games and has been a monster in the middle.

Along with right-back Pablo Zabaleta, the group has conceded just three goals in five games -- all of them won by a single tally.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising.

For a country best known for producing goal-getters like Messi and Diego Maradona, Argentina has churned out plenty of top-end defenders through the years.

And as has been the case in Brazil, they always seem to do enough. On those days when the Albiceleste can't score, they don't concede many, either. Argentine journalist Sebastian Garcia, a former ESPN The Magazine contributor, likens the current team to a boxer with knockout power.

"Whenever that winning punch doesn't appear," Garcia said, "this guy knows how to defend."

Argentina has failed to score in just five of 39 matches under Sabella, but they lost just one of those, to Venezuela, early in his tenure.

That stinginess should come in handy against the Dutch.

Unlike Germany's 7-1 mauling of host Brazil in the first semifinal, Wednesday's tilt figures to be tight, with the Netherlands sitting deep in an effort to thwart Messi and Higuain.

While Di Maria is out with a thigh injury, Sabella revealed on Tuesday that Aguero could return from his own thigh problem. The Oranje hope to spring winger Arjen Robben on the break, hoping to exploit their foe's perceived weakness.

"He is quite an unbalancing player in a one-on-one," Sabella said of Robben. "When he picks up any speed it is much more difficult to take the ball away from him. We have to be especially careful to have players close."

If their performance in Brazil is any indication, Argentina appears up for the task.

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.