Argentina's Javier Mascherano is older, slower but still utterly indispensable
Like a proud and aging bantamweight boxer, Javier Mascherano ended Argentina's match against Nigeria bloodied but unbowed.
Argentina just managed to stay alive in the competition, beating the Super Eagles with a late Marcos Rojo strike on a night when so many roads led to their veteran No. 14. Mascherano was a symbol of the evening -- for good reasons and bad.
Some 15 years ago, he made his debut for Argentina -- before he had even played a game for his club side, River Plate. Argentina knew they had something special, and within a year, it was impossible to imagine the national team without him. A decade and a half later, though, it can often seem hard to imagine how he is still there. He has held the side together for years from his position in front of the back four. It has been some time since Argentina have produced top quality keepers, full-backs and centre-backs. Indeed, it has often seemed that the defence has been held together by a combination of duct tape and Mascherano.
Argentina battled their way through to the final of the last World Cup with a combination of the classy grit of Mascherano and flashes of brilliance from Lionel Messi. As was clear against Nigeria, Messi can still do his thing, while Mascherano no longer can. His legs have gone, and he is no longer able to protect that suspect defensive unit. Croatia passed their way around him with embarrassing ease, and he was hardly a barrier to the pacey Nigeria breaks, repeatedly being beaten to the line by Ahmed Musa in the second half.
A clear issue here is that no one has emerged to replace him, which is at the heart of Argentina's current problems. Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup on five occasions, and their team at that level produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior side. Mascherano was one of them -- as were the likes of Sergio Aguero, Ever Banega, Angel Di Maria and Messi.
Since 2007, though, Argentina's Under-20 sides have consistently been very poor. The production line has dried up, and the result is that the side Argentina fielded against Nigeria -- the youngest at the tournament -- was one of the oldest the World Cup has ever seen. If everything was going well with Argentine youth football, then, Mascherano would already be history. But for the duration of the tournament, he is very much part of the present. And this, despite his age and his error-prone performance, has its plus points.
The big one, perhaps, is off the field. Argentina's short-term problem has been the incompatibility between the pressing idea of Jorge Sampaoli and the resources at his disposal. Without the defensive pace to carry out his plan, the coach has been utterly lost, clutching at new ideas as if each one were a string that could open the parachute before colliding with the ground. He has had more theories than Darwin, with none of the evolution evident.
Following the shambolic 3-0 defeat to Croatia, the senior players, with Mascherano evidently playing a leading role, have forced a dose of pragmatic sanity upon their coach. No more back three, no more wingers improvised as full backs. A basic back four and a conventional approach were what was needed to balance attack with defence.
This was part of the 11th-hour remedy that avoided the humiliation of a first-round exit. Another part of the mix were the two wonderful goals, smashed home right-footed by two left-footed players: Messi and Rojo, the centre-back who found himself in the centre-forward position at the vital moment.
This decision is part of the rebellious spirit that Sampaoli paid tribute to after the game -- and it is a spirit that Mascherano continues to embody. Because however bad his performance, however daunting the task, Mascherano has a characteristic that endears him to every coach he has played under: He never hides, he is always there to accept the ball and take responsibility.
In its many flaws and its gutsy virtues, Argentina's win over Nigeria was achieved in the spirit of Javier Mascherano. But whether that spirit will be enough to see off the French on Saturday in the round of 16 is another matter.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.