Mascherano vital to Argentina's Copa America campaign
At the 2004 Copa America in Peru, Javier Mascherano was a newcomer to the Argentina team. He had just turned 20, but the defensive midfielder played with such authority that it was already hard to imagine an Argentina side without him.
He seemed to have gotten his international career off to a winning start. He gave an outstanding performance in the final against Brazil, marking rival playmaker Alex out of the game, and provided his team a platform for what appeared to be a deserved victory.
But with the last kick of the game, Adriano rifled in a superb, stunning equaliser for Brazil. The match went straight to penalties, and Argentina, stumbling around in a daze, were easily beaten. Mascherano would have to wait a while to win a senior title with his country.
Eleven years later, he is still waiting. True, he can point to a couple of Olympic gold medals. But time is running out to get his hands on some senior silverware. There are no guarantees that he will still be around for the next World Cup in 2018. The coming Copa America, then, is an important occasion for him. And he remains extremely important for Argentina, as their 2-1 win over Ecuador on Tuesday made very clear.
Mascherano's passes are pinpoint from centre-field. He reads the danger to his defence and snuffs it out with his crisp tackling. And there is plenty for him to protect.
Some point to the statistics of last year's World Cup in an attempt to argue that Argentina have no defensive problems. This, though, is to ignore the context.
The side groomed by previous coach Alejandro Sabella was based around the individual genius of its stars. Lionel Messi operated behind Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, with Angel Di Maria as part of a midfield trio.
Going forward they were exhilarating. But front-loading the team had consequences. It left Argentina stretched out and open to the opposing counterattack, both because of the number of front players and because of the defensive lack of pace. Sabella acknowledged the problem. When the opposition were attacking, he said there were times when all he could do was close his eyes and pray.
Come the World Cup, however, necessity forced a more cautious approach. At the end of the club season, his attacking stars were injured or out of gas. Sabella had to rethink his tactics, and the obvious solution was to drop his team deeper and ensure his defence was less exposed.
It almost worked.
Argentina came close to winning the final vs. Germany. But the Argentines' football never came close to fulfilling the expectations of those who had thrilled at their swashbuckling approach in qualification.
New coach Gerardo Martino has not quite turned the clock back to the days before the World Cup. In his first few games, a choice has been made between Aguero or Higuain. Di Maria has been employed as part of the front three, or wide in a 4-2-3-1, rather than as a member of the midfield trio. But the balance of the side is still tipped toward attack -- which means that the lack of defensive pace can still be a problem.
Ezequiel Garay is a fine centre-back, but he is not the quickest. And neither is his latest partner, Nicolas Otamendi, who was horribly exposed in the 2010 World Cup when misguidedly selected at right-back. Martino's idea is that when Argentina build from the back, the pair of centre-backs should fan out wide, allowing the full-backs to push high up the flanks and construct a circuit of passing options that allows the team to play its way through the opposition.
Problems occur, however, when this circuit breaks down, as it did too often in the first half against Ecuador. Di Maria was used on the right, so he was always cutting in onto his stronger foot, while on the other flank Federico Mancuello looked unhappy in a wide role. So when Ecuador pressed and won possession, there was a giant gap between the two centre-backs, who lacked the pace to fill it. It was a case, time and time again, of Mascherano to the rescue. Argentina may well have been fortunate Ecuador did not select their first-choice wide men, Luis Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, who may have had too much pace and trickery for Martino's defenders to contain.
Ecuador managed only one goal -- Miller Bolanos shooting home from a cross from the left, taking advantage of a slack piece of marking by Otamendi. It proved mere consolation, as Argentina struck in the second half to win 2-1. But the Ecuador goal was not without significance.
Three new coaches -- all of them Argentine -- debuted with South American teams over the last few days. Bolanos' shot was the only goal from all three sides. Ecuador, under Gustavo Quinteros, fell 1-0 to Mexico before losing to Argentina. Under Ramon Diaz, Paraguay drew 0-0 with Costa Rica and lost to Mexico 1-0. And Ricardo Gareca's Peru lost 1-0 to Venezuela.
All these coaches will be hoping that more time on the training field will lead to a greater attacking threat in the Copa America. But if they play Argentina, Javier Mascherano will be on guard to snuff out the danger.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.