Argentina World Cup quest falls short
The stage was set for Lionel Messi and Argentina to snatch a World Cup trophy from the backyard of rival Brazil, but the Albiceleste's campaign fell just short. ESPN FC blogger Sam Kelly picks through Argentina's oh-so-close tournament.
One-sentence World Cup recap
It has not been as swashbuckling as we expected, but surprising defensive resolve, a lot of critics back home answered and, of course, doing it all in Brazil can hardly be sniffed at. What's more, a first final in 24 years can only possibly be summed up with one word: success.
Javier Mascherano, whose all-action displays even lead to a series of Chuck Norris-style jokes about his powers in the days following the semifinal. Sergio Romero in goal ran him close, and Marcos Rojo was a pleasant surprise, while Messi might not have stunned us but was absolutely key merely by his presence drawing in defenders. Mascherano, though, has become something close to a folk hero.
The group stage had only a few: Messi's goal against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Messi's goal against Iran, Messi's first goal against Nigeria (it wasn't spectacular but it was the fastest goal in Argentina's World Cup history), Messi's second goal against Nigeria.
All team assessments
Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast | Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
In the knockout stage, we had Messi's run and pass for Angel Di Maria to win the round of 16 tie with Switzerland at the death, and then at last a sustained performance of quality. The quarterfinal against Belgium might have been yet another victory by just one goal, but the performance was far better and Argentina would have been two or three up by halftime if they'd had their shooting boots on.
Then came an intriguing tactical battle with the Netherlands, that tackle on Arjen Robben by Javier Mascherano, and much derided goalkeeper Sergio Romero's heroic performance in the penalty shootout.
The first half of the opening match, in which Gonzalo Higuain wasn't fit enough to start and Sergio Aguero was anonymous, seemed to sum up a lot of Argentina's World Cup. They ended the half with the lead, but it was clear things weren't going right in attack.
Fitness was an issue throughout. Barely had Higuain come back (and was struggling to find his rhythm) than the already misfiring Aguero got injured, and before he'd even returned, Di Maria picked up an injury that also ruled him out.
Elsewhere in the side, the awful performances of Federico Fernandez saw him dropped before he became a real liability, and Fernando Gago, who'd previously looked good for Argentina, finally saw his poor club form for Boca Juniors catch up with him.
And then, of course, that goal from Mario Gotze right at the death of Argentina's best performance of the tournament (it was the first time in the whole World Cup that they'd fallen behind).
Don't be afraid of change. Early on in Argentina's campaign, it looked like the players were struggling with the system and with each other, and it was difficult to see how things were going to be turned around in such a short and intense period of time as a World Cup campaign. But Alejandro Sabella switched systems when required -- from the ill-fated 5-3-2 to a 4-3-3 and then a 4-4-2 -- and dropped under-performing players who'd previously been fixtures, such as Gago and Fernandez.
At the same time, show faith in the right players and they'll reward you. Sergio Romero went from zero to hero, and Marcos Rojo was an even more surprising success story. Other reliable players were less surprising, not least Mascherano and Messi.