The FIFA World Cup is drawing ever nearer and the usual suspects are emerging as to who could lift the trophy on July 13th. Can Spain continue their record-breaking spell of dominance to lift a fourth successive trophy?
Is it the right time for Germany’s exciting brood of talent, first blooded at the 2010 World Cup, to grab the bull by its horns? Will Brazil, with home advantage and 170 million fans roaring them on, lift a sixth title?
And then there’s Argentina. The team who, it is generally agreed, have the most frightening attacking force on the planet.
Lionel Messi may have finally surrendered the Ballon d’Or after holding the trophy hostage for four years, but remains without a shadow of a doubt at the top of football’s talent tree. Then there are the likes of Sergio Aguero, who scored 50 seconds after coming on last night for Manchester City.
Gonzalo Higuain, Rodrigo Palacio, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel di Maria, Carlos Tevez: Argentine forwards haunt the top European clubs. With the wealth of options they boast, it is entirely feasible the two-time World Cup winners could be adding a third string to their bow at the Maracana Stadium later this year.
They were the first South American nation to qualify for the World Cup, guaranteeing their place with two games to spare. Argentina notched up 35 goals in 16 games at a rate of 2.18 goals per game.
And yet there remains a nagging doubt about the gaping imbalance of the team. For all their abundance of talent, they remain a top-heavy side, and that brings with it two problems in a tournament as fiercely competitive and punishing as the World Cup.
Firstly, finding the right balance in the attacking third of the field can become an acute juggling act. Coach Alejandro Sabella appears to favour an attacking trio of Messi, Higuain and Aguero.
But the injury picked up by the Barcelona forward forced Sabella’s hand during friendly games against Ecuador and Bosnia in November.
Against Bosnia, Sabella switched shape entirely, going for a 4-4-2 with Palacio and Aguero leading the line. The Manchester City forward bagged a brace in a comfortable 2-0 win.
Three days earlier against Ecuador, Sabella’s three-man attack failed to have the same effect with Messi out of the side. Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria was pushed further forward alongside Lavezzi and Higuain.
The game ended a tame goalless draw, Argentina managing just a solitary shot on goal during the 90 minutes. And that brings the second concern.
There must remain a fear for Argentina that their midfield does not possess the cutting edge to slice apart stubborn opponents.
Javier Mascherano is an excellent midfield enforcer, closing in on 100 caps for his country, and is sure to start. The man who could partner him in the middle of the park may well be Valencia’s Ever Banega.
But the 25-year-old is yet to consistently turn his promise into top-class performances at club level. On his day, he is one of the most accurate and incisive passers of the ball you will see.
Despite Banega’s deficiencies, Argentina’s main source of concern remains in defence. At the 2010 World Cup, under the haphazard guidance of Diego Maradona, they were tactically undone by a ruthless German outfit, losing 4-0 in the quarter-finals.
Sabella went about qualifying for this World Cup in a calmer, more calculated manner. Whereas Maradona seemingly ruled with his heart, Sabella is more of a plotter, one who tries to find a way around an obstacle rather than attempting to power through it.
In qualifying stages, they conceded only 15 goals in 16 games at less than a goal at a game. During the World Cup, tactical organization will be key to Argentine progress.
Tests during the latter stages of a knock-out tournament will be sterner and Mascherano can be used to good effect, combining the role of holding midfielder and centre-half when necessary to aid an inexperienced back line.
If Argentina are to have real aspirations of lifting the World Cup trophy on Brazilian soil—and wouldn’t they love to do just that—Sabella must use all resources at his disposal. It is not simply a case of most aggressive foot forward.