One of the favourites for the upcoming Brazil World Cup, Argentina, nevertheless, have a noticeable Achilles' heel. But in the shape of Barcelona star Javier Mascherano, perhaps the Albiceleste already possess the key to fix up a defence that still fails to inspire great confidence.
There should be no doubt that, come June 2014, the world’s eyes will be on the Argentine national team. Going forward, the side is arguably the most complete unit in international football.
What other team can boast an equivalent to the measured, intelligent distribution of Fernando Gago in midfield, the explosive wide play of Angel Di Maria and a startling potency in front of goal typified by first-choice strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain?
Perhaps more importantly, what other team can field a player of the calibre of Lionel Messi? The Argentina No. 10 is the best player on the planet, and recent performances in national colours suggest the captain is finally ready to carry his country to glory.
But there is a weak side to that star-studded line-up. Just as in that ill-fated campaign of 2010, Alejandro Sabella’s men go into the World Cup with doubts over defensive stability. This is where Mascherano, so important in the middle of the pitch, could prove to be a game-changer for the team he captained during the last tournament.
The former River, Corinthians and Liverpool man does not take the form of the stereotypical central defender. At just 1.74 meters (5’9”) tall, El Jefecito is a dwarf in a position where 6 feet is the generally accepted lower modern limit for stature. Against all odds, however, the midfielder has been moulded into an international class stopper at Barcelona.
What he lacks in physical strength and aerial presence, Mascherano compensates for with his intelligence and knowledge of the game. The Argentine also possesses a tenacity and timing in the tackle that is rare for a modern centre-back; his style faintly brings back memories of one Franco Baresi, whose diminutive frame was no impediment for the AC Milan legend as he established himself as one of the greatest defenders of the modern era.
Sabella could utilise the Barcelona man in a similar role he plays in the Camp Nou. Alongside Ezequiel Garay, the best of the current bunch of Argentine markers, he would form a similar sort of partnership as seen with Gerard Pique: a big man, small man set-up that provides ample mobility while still covering the aerial demands of the position.
Of course, the situation is not quite as clear cut as it seems. In his club, Mascherano has the luxury of playing in front of Victor Valdes, one of the most underrated goalkeepers of modern times.
Valdes often plays almost as a sweeper, reacting with lightning quick reflexes when the ball encroaches upon the area and tidying up in the final third.
Argentina first choice Sergio Romero is by no means a terrible keeper. But his presence and reactions are not in the same league as the Barcelona man’s; it is debatable whether he could afford Masche the same security that he enjoys in club football.
The issue of who would fill the midfielder’s giant boots further up the pitch would also need to be tackled. Ever Banega and Lucas Biglia are both fine players worthy of most international starting line-ups.
But could they recreate the sheer will to win and propensity to put their bodies on the line that makes the former captain such an effective destroyer? The jury is still out on that front, but it is almost inevitable that something would be lost by Mascherano dropping deeper.
Ideally, every team in the world would have at least two Mascheranos among the first XI. But that is of course absurd; hard choices need to be made.
The decision is Sabella’s to take; are the player’s unique set of skills best employed in the thick of the action, or further back down the pitch where he would also serve as the catalyst for Argentina’s favoured rapid counters, which supply a generous percentage of their goals?
For this commentator, the risk has to be taken. Argentina’s rickety defence is not going to become world beating overnight; that much should be clear by now.
But the inclusion of Mascherano would introduce a new element that, against the rapid attacks of fellow candidates Brazil, Spain and Germany, could prove the difference between knockout heartbreak and lifting the trophy in front of a packed Maracana.