This always looked like it could be Lionel Messi’s World Cup and early indications would suggest that the little magician from Rosario means business. But the $64,000 question remains: Are the rest of the team up to the task?
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure; win or lose, fasten your seatbelts because it’s going to be one hell of a ride, and probably at both ends of the pitch.
Let’s not beat about the bush. Without Messi’s four goals in the first three games, this Argentina side could have been seriously looking at an early exit from the tournament.
The "Hand of God" followed swiftly by the "goal of the century" against England in the 1986 World Cup have guaranteed that that tournament will forever be remembered as the Maradona World Cup for both good and bad reasons.
But the fact is, if you analyse Maradona’s contribution, as historic as it turned out to be, it formed no more than about 20 minutes of the entire tournament.
In football, you are invariably remembered for what you achieved, rather than what you prevented, and the reality is that the 1986 Argentina side conceded just three goals on their way to the final, which they won 3-2 against West Germany. The 2014 side has let in three after just three games.
If the boys of 1986 won because they had Maradona and a great defence then victory for the 2014 edition of La Albiceleste will probably be earned despite, and not because of, the side's defensive prowess. And it will almost certainly be because, in Messi, they have arguably the greatest player in the history of the game.
This was always the tournament that Messi had his eyes on, and at one stage during the bidding process, the hopes were that it would actually be held in his native Argentina.
The Barcelona star comes to the event as physically fit as he has been for a long time, but more importantly, more mature, assertive and as mentally strong as he has ever been.
So when a pedestrian Argentina looked to be labouring against Bosnia-Herzegovina in their first match of the tournament, there was a frank exchange of views in the dressing room between the management and the side’s captains (Messi, Javier Mascherano, Pablo Zabaleta), which came to the opinion that the system in place wasn’t quite hitting the spot.
A younger, meeker, more manageable and compliant Messi would have said nothing and carried on doing as he was told—but not at this tournament. This is his time, his moment, his World Cup; whether it’s won or lost, it’s going to be played his way.
Messi explained in the post-match press conference that he plays better when in the hole behind two attackers.
The introduction of Gonzalo Higuain to the front line and the inclusion of Fernando Gago in the midfield—along with the abandonment of a five-man defence—gave a greater pace and sped up proceedings. Other top players (Mascherano, Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Zabaleta) repeated those words, and the five-man defence was ended.
A five-man defence leaves Messi disconnected from the main action and forces him to drop further back in order to get involved.
Messi has it in his locker to inflict damage anywhere on the pitch, but he knows better than anyone that he is most effective in or around his opponents' area. He knows a chance will come his way sooner or later, be it via a dead-ball situation as against Nigeria or a chance to run at the defence as seen against Iran.
The problem is Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella knows that style breaks the team in two. The defenders defend; the attackers attack—it is not ideal.
You would want the rival moves to be broken long before the back four has to deal with it, but it is not happening.
Sabella thought five defenders could balance the team as the full-backs can go forward more often. But the players have won that war. Messi has.
As a result, Argentina have been getting better by the game, although the sight of Ahmed Musa sauntering through the middle of the Argentina defence for Nigeria’s second goal will have given poor Sabella an attack of the vapours.
There’s no going back now. Argentina, and in particular, Messi, have set out their stall and what we’re going to get is more of the same.
Up next is Switzerland. Hold on to your hats.
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