AnalysisThursday, July 10, 2014
Weakest link turns to greatest virtue
It was agonizing. It was gut-wrenching. Nerves could not have been greater as Argentina closed in on the final of the 2014 World Cup. But finally, and thanks to a heroic Sergio Romero in between the posts, the Albiceleste will take on Germany this Sunday in the tournament’s decisive fixture, in no less fitting a stage than Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium.
True to their style throughout the World Cup, it was not going to be straightforward for the side managed by Alejandro Sabella. Facing the Netherlands, one of the most dangerous attacking sides in international soccer, what resulted was a 120-minute game of chess that was nerve-wracking for anyone supporting either of the two teams. Outside observers may not have been too entertained, but that will matter little to the Argentine heroes as they prepare for their first final since Italy all the way back in 1990, 24 years ago.
In truth, the two teams both appeared too frightened of what the other could do to them at the back to push hard for the triumph in regular time. This may not have been only influenced by the game ahead. Germany’s majestic 7-1 dismantling of Brazil the night before was taken as a warning by Sabella and his Dutch counterpart, Louis Van Gaal — if the opposition gets space, they have the ability to humiliate.
Marcos Rojo was just four months old when Diego Maradona’s team pushed their way into the final, also against Germany (or West Germany in those days), and he was one of the players who stood up to be counted during a brutally tough marathon against the Dutch.
The left-back was tasked with keeping Arjen Robben muted, and performed his job admirably in limiting the Bayern Munich star’s incursions off the flank. Ezequiel Garay and Martín Demichelis were also immense at the back, with the peerless Javier Mascherano always on hand, and what threatened to be an extremely complicated Oranje attack was instead left toothless for almost the entire game.
Mascherano deserves a paragraph apart. His relentless pursuit of Robben throughout the match, helping Rojo at all times, was pivotal.
It was not a game for attacking stars to make their name. Lionel Messi raised hopes early in the first-half with a free-kick saved by Jasper Cillessen, but otherwise endured his worst game of the World Cup so far. The Barcelona man appeared to be missing the injured Ángel Di María, shackled throughout by constant Netherlands marking and his passing was uncharacteristically wayward.
But two saves from Romero in the shootout, arguably the first he was forced to make in the entire match, put all those doubts out of mind for now. The Albiceleste may have seen their run of five consecutive wins cut with the goalless tie, but their run in the World Cup remains intact.
Curiously, prior to the emotion of the shoot-out victory, the Argentine team appeared to reach the latter stages with almost no fanfare and attention outside of the nation itself. When one compares the campaign of Sabella, for example, with Maradona’s wild ride to the quarterfinals in 2010, the side have done what they needed to with the minimum of fanfare and controversy.
The stability shown in the quarterfinals against Belgium was repeated once more in Sao Paulo’s Corinthians Arena. The Netherlands took a total of 20 attempts on goal in their quarterfinal tie against Costa Rica, which also ended in penalties. In 120 minutes attempting to break down Argentina, Robben and his teammates shot just seven times, forcing a lone save from Romero that barely troubled the new idol of Argentine soccer.
The defence, that supposedly weak link in the team, has proved to be perhaps the Albiceleste’s greatest virtue in Brazil. But even preparing for a final after so many aborted attempts, it feels like there is still a little more to come from this Argentina team.
Germany rocked the world with their pitiless destruction of the host’s World Cup dreams in Belo Horizonte. For Argentina as well, memories of the last eight in South Africa, where a team coached by Maradona succumbed to a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Europeans, will only be heightened by the events of this week. Despite the celebrations and carhorns already filling the Buenos Aires air as soon as Maxi Rodríguez’s final penalty curled into the back of the net, nobody is under any illusions about the challenge that awaits the side in just a few days.
The base is there for the last remaining South American team in the competition, solid and difficult to pass. But this is the time for Messi, as well as Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín, to also step up at the other end of the pitch.
An entire nation will be paralyzed on Sunday, and those up front have the responsibility of matching the fantastic work of their ir teammates further down the pitch in order to knock the German juggernaut off course and return the trophy to Argentina for the first time in a generation.It will be difficult, but not impossible.