Ever since he took over from Sergio Batista in the wake of the 2011 Copa America failure, Alejandro Sabella has had one overriding priority as Argentina coach. Continuity, both in the players put out as well as the tactics played, has been key to the nation's overhaul and storming qualification for the World Cup.
Fernando Gago has been an integral piece of that team, partnering Javier Mascherano in the middle of the pitch. But while his international form has been impeccable, doubts have continued to circulate around the cultured midfielder.
Since Sabella took over at the helm, he has seen his star play at no less than four different clubs. At none of them, be it Roma, Valencia, Velez Sarsfield and Boca Juniors, has he managed to play more than 40 games, largely thanks to a string of frustrating injuries that have continually halted his progress at club level.
Now that same curse threatens to throw a fairly substantial spanner in the works for the Argentina World Cup campaign.
After feeling a sharp pain at the weekend during Boca's uninspired 0-0 draw with Colon in Santa Fe, it was revealed the following day by Sky Sports that Gago had suffered a serious sprain of the left knee. Club doctors estimate that he will be out of action for up to two months—not necessarily ruling him out of Brazil 2014, but at the very least ensuring that he would arrive at the tournament short of fitness.
Potentially losing a player of Gago's quality is not perhaps such a mortal blow to Argentina as it would be to many other teams. While the Albiceleste defence still inspires doubt, an embarrassment of talent from the middle onward means the nation is considered one of the favourites for World Cup glory on their home continent.
In a side containing the likes of Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Mascherano and other stars, it is easy to diminish the former Real Madrid man's role in the team.
This would be a mistake, however. Gago's intelligence and range of passing makes him the perfect balance in Sabella's favoured three-man midfield. Between the stoic anchor duties of Mascherano and Di Maria's tendency to act as a fourth striker to often devastating effect, Gago is the man who covers the void between the two, playing offensively and defensively.
When Argentina counter, using a move that has supplied so many of their goals in the last three years, take a quick look at who provides the pass which gets the whole machine moving. More often than not, you will see the injured star at the centre of the action, releasing Di Maria or Messi with his impeccable distribution.
Without the 28-year-old, a natural replacement is difficult to identify. Ever Banega would perhaps be the most natural choice, but the former Valencia man is suffering rotten form at Newell's Old Boys and does not offer the same dynamism in the middle.
Lucas Biglia is another option and almost certain to be in the squad, but the Lazio man is a more defensive option and would not galvanise the team in the same way. Meanwhile, the inclusion of an attacking player such as Ricky Alvarez or Augusto Fernandez could leave the side dangerously outnumbered and stretched at the back.
Then there is one Estaban Cambiasso, still starring with Inter. But having not received a single call-up from Sabella in the three years he has been in charge, the veteran midfielder's international days appear to have come to a close under the current coach.
Gago should not be written off just yet. His injury, while frustrating, will still allow him to train and enter rehabilitation with a minimal rest period. This should increase hopes that two months down the line he will be fit enough to take the field with Argentina as they begin their World Cup campaign. In any case, it would be very surprising indeed to see him cut out of the squad at this stage, even with fitness doubts.
But the situation is undoubtedly a headache for the Albiceleste, who will not be able to play their favoured line-up prior to the tournament itself. Gago can be replaced, but if he does not make it back in time his absence will be sorely felt in the middle of the pitch going into Brazil 2014.
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