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May 23, 2014

Sabella's second chance clinic

Martin Demichelis in action for Argentina against Bolivia in 2011.
Martin Demichelis in action for Argentina against Bolivia in 2011.

On a glorious Buenos Aires spring day, a defender watches a bouncing ball come his way. Realising it's going over his head, he turns and sticks out a leg in an attempt to bring it down and shepherd it away from the trouble he knows is getting rapidly closer. It's a frequent enough scenario in any football match, but this time, the defender misjudges his angles and the speed with which the forward is arriving. A stolen ball, a few twists and a powerful finish later, and the ball is in the net.

The forward on that occasion was Marcelo Martins, then of Shakhtar Donetsk but now of Cruzeiro in Brazil (where he's known, using his maternal surname, as Marcelo Moreno). The defender, hanging his head and considering the indignity of being at fault for Bolivia taking a 1-0 lead over Argentina not in the much-feared altitude of La Paz but on Argentina's home soil of Buenos Aires, is Martin Demichelis.

That match was played in November 2011, near the start of Alejandro Sabella's time as manager of the Argentine national team. Since then, they've gelled as a team and look a very dangerous prospect in most areas of the pitch for Brazil 2014. And in all that time, Demichelis has not been called up. It was, then, something of a surprise -- even for those who were aware of his recent upturn in form for Manchester City -- when he was named in the preliminary squad last week.

And yet surprising though it was, it's also a decision whose good sense was clear as soon as it was announced. Demichelis has had a good second half of the season in precisely one of the two positions in which Argentina have the most trouble; the left-hand side of the back four. At right-back, Pablo Zabaleta is solid going forward and defending. At right centre-back, Ezequiel Garay has been arguably the best player in the Portuguese league this season. But on the left, things aren't so secure, and that's where Demichelis' experience and return to form could be vital.

Marcos Rojo is an uninspiring choice at left-back but, short of cloning Zabaleta, there aren't really any options available to Argentina with experience at the top level in Europe. Federico Fernandez, at left centre-back, is a decent player but is not on Garay's level. It's arguably even more important that this side of the defence is shored up because Angel Di Maria, on the left of Argentina's midfield three, will be breaking high up the pitch much more frequently than Fernando Gago/Ever Banega/Lucas Biglia on the right.

Demichelis has already survived the first cull; on Tuesday, Sabella announced that four players wouldn't be needed to begin training. Those were Franco Di Santo (you see, I told you he wasn't really being preferred to Carlos Tevez), Fabian Rinaudo -- an exclusion which suggests Gago's recovery from injury is going well -- and the defensive pair of Getafe's Lisandro Lopez and River Plate's Gabriel Mercado.

That Demichelis is still there, along with seven other defenders in a list with just three more surplus players to be cut, demonstrates that defensive options are still the priority. With Argentina's first pre-World Cup friendly, against Trinidad and Tobago, not played until a couple of days after the squad deadline of the June 2, performances in training will be everything. Demichelis surely now stands a great chance of heading to Brazil, though, even though just a few weeks ago he admits to "having more confidence of winning the Premier League than of being called up by Argentina."

"I thought I was going to be left out," he also said. If Sabella's decision to eventually give him a second chance two and a half years on from that slip up against Bolivia turns out to be a wise one, it could prove key to Argentina's hopes of a successful tournament.