SAO PAULO -- In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Spain was crowned world champion after winning all of their matches 1-0 in the knockout phases. Argentina reached the Brazil 2014 final without conceding a single goal in the round of 16, quarterfinals or semifinals. If Argentina produce another similar result in Sunday's match at Maracana versus Germany, that similarity with Spain will be less of a coincidence and more of a pattern we should watch carefully in the future.
Everything depends on the eye of the beholder, but the only certainty is that, at a World Cup, it is critical to protect your own goal. In such a tight match, where collective play often makes the difference, keeping a clean sheet becomes a priority. Accepting this is a matter of personal preference, but denying it would be completely foolish.
Alejandro Sabella was the first to understand this. Since he took the helm of the national team, he tried to solve a years-old problem: serious difficulties in the back line. Argentina had the world's best attack, but a defensive structure that did not measure up. There was talk of "short blanket syndrome" (either your feet are cold, or your shoulders are) and of emphasizing the strengths. The team qualified with confidence for the World Cup in 2014, but these concerns did not diminish. The opening match in Brazil arrived and the poor performance raised even more concerns as all of the teams Argentina faced in the group stage were able to create scoring chances.
However, when nobody expected it, Sabella found the proper lineup and formula. The first trial by fire was against Switzerland. Argentina was organized and focused, but suffered due to individual errors, particularly those of Federico Fernández and Fernando Gago. Nerves and the pressure understandably got the better of Fernández, and clearly neither Gago's mind nor body were fully in the game. The national team had a strong performance, despite needing a late goal in extra time, to take their place in the last eight.
In the quarterfinals, against Belgium, Sabella had the smarts, the insight and the courage to switch out two of the players that had started for most of his tenure. Demichelis and Lucas Biglia came on for Fernández and Gago. Their contributions were key to giving Argentina unexpected strength, with the result that at times the team seemed unassailable in the defensive third.
Against Belgium, they nipped the opponent's attack in the bud. Javier Mascherano and Biglia shut down Fellaini and De Bruyne. Moreover, Hazard was blocked by Basanta, who performed splendidly as a replacement for suspended Marcos Rojo. It was a collective effort, based on coordination in covering attackers and trust between teammates. Everyone worked for the benefit of the team, and that was the cornerstone and main reason for their success.
Demichelis provided peace of mind, solidity and poise, and enabled Ezequiel Garay's work in central defence to be fully effective. Lucas Biglia was much more productive than Gago, as he passed the ball with confidence, created more space in the midfield and was vital in helping Mascherano recover the ball. Against Netherlands, the Lazio player ran farther than anyone: more than 9.3 miles.
It is said that champions are built back to front, moving from less to more in tournaments. So far, Argentina fits the bill. Against Netherlands, the team first of all established their places on the field, setting up the line of four and the two central midfielders, and built their initiatives on that foundation. Zabaleta and Rojo joined the attack only when the defenders outnumbered the attackers, and Mascherano often moved into the middle to help out. Biglia was everyone's lifeline, a key player in this operation.
While the great strength of Argentina's new strategy is cohesion and collective effort, one particular individual stands out. Javier Mascherano is remarkable not only for his play Wednesday, when he was the heart and soul and the most adept player on the team, but throughout the whole World Cup. In the six matches, No. 14's accuracy and intelligence were a step above the rest. He is probably the most consistent player of the entire championship. He is key to bringing lines together, and he organizes and brings out the best in his teammates.
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Garay's performance was also noteworthy. The defender from Rosario has made almost no mistakes during the entire tournament. He won one-to-one contests, dominated the offensive free kicks of his opponents and showed great poise. He has been fast on the crosses and never fared badly. He is the best center-back of the World Cup, along with Mats Hummels.
This solidity can be attributed to Sabella and to the whole national team, because it is not just the work of the seven defensive players that should be commended, but also that of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Lionel Messi, Enzo Pérez, Angel Di María, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodrigo Palacio. All of them played as an integral part of the whole. They pulled back, marked up, looked out for their teammates and always helped out.
Argentina built its game from front to back, but as the tournament has progressed they've played from back to front. This is crucial for a team striving for the ultimate victory. Because if the level of the defence is maintained, nothing is impossible. Especially when Messi is up front.