5 Reasons Why Argentina Can Win the 2014 World Cup
For the first time in 24 years, Argentina find themselves among the best four teams in the world. A clash against the Netherlands in Sao Paulo is their reward, after taking down the Oranje's neighbours Belgium 1-0 to book their place in the World Cup semi-finals.
Confidence is high in the Argentina camp, although the possible absence of Angel Di Maria is a blow to their chances. But in four previous visits to the tournament's penultimate round, in 1930, 1978 (where the format was a double group stage), 1986 and 1990, the nation has never failed to progress to the final.
History is not the only thing the Albiceleste have on their side as they await the challenge of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and the rest of the Netherlands' stellar team. The South Americans have plenty of reasons to believe their winning streak can continue long enough to put them in the World Cup's showpiece fixture.
Higuain Has Finally Found the Goal
An early goal against Belgium, and an excellent goal to boot, was just what Argentina needed to establish their advantage and dominate proceedings in the quarter-final. Perhaps even more important for the nation's chances in the World Cup, however, was the identity of the man who volleyed the ball home.
Napoli star Gonzalo Higuain shrugged off four disappointing performances to open the scoring, picking up on a deflected Di Maria pass to smash into the back of the net. It was not just his strike; Pipita looked reborn as his movement and confidence returned, and only the crossbar denied him a second.
If Di Maria is indeed ruled out of contention, the onus will be on Higuain to lead the team from the front, creating chances for himself if the flow of passes dries up. If he keeps up the same form shown against Belgium, this should not prove too arduous a task.
They Will Be at 'Home'
Across Brazil, the following that Alejandro Sabella's men have received is nothing short of mesmerising. More than 170,000 fans have streamed across the Argentine-Brazilian border to follow the nation, per the Buenos Aires Herald, meaning that in almost every game the Albiceleste have been practically playing at home.
"Home" advantage does not win games by itself, particularly when one considers the fervent opposition the side have faced in the stand from Brazilian viewers in the latter rounds.
The squad's emotional celebrations following victory over Belgium, however, say it all: Lionel Messi and his team-mates are not just playing for themselves, but for all those thousands who have packed the stands from Rio to Brasilia.
Mascherano Is Destroying All Comers
Ask an Argentinian fan who the most effective player in their team is, and you are likely to receive one of two answers. Lionel Messi obviously figures high in unofficial polls but right behind him, and even on top in the view of many observers, is unflappable midfield general Javier Mascherano.
A rock in the Albiceleste team for the first four matches, Mascherano was even more effective against Belgium as he was paired with fellow destroyer Lucas Biglia. The likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne were neutered in a way few opposition units have been able to achieve over the past year, while El Jefecito is no slouch either in changing the direction of play upfield.
A tackling machine who seems never to miss a single pass, if Mascherano can keep up the same level against the Netherlands, Argentina will receive a massive boost in their bid for a fourth final appearance.
The Defence Is Looking Better
Alejandro Sabella is undoubtedly a wily operator. The Argentina coach did not panic on seeing a less-than-assuring defence stutter against the likes of Nigeria and Switzerland. He waited for the right moment, and then made the changes that appeared to transform the back line in the quarter-finals.
Martin Demichelis was a revelation in the centre alongside Ezequiel Garay. He may have lopped off his distinctive ponytail, but the Manchester City man's combative approach and willingness to get under the skin of attackers was a world away from the toils of the more timid Federico Fernandez.
Monterrey idol Jose Basanta, meanwhile, made sure Marcos Rojo would not be missed too much during his suspension, and now Sabella has the welcome dilemma of choosing one out of the two to shackle the Oranje this Wednesday. Two clean sheets in a row highlights a defence coming into its own during the World Cup.
They Have Lionel Messi
Argentina's progress through to the World Cup semi-finals has gone hand-in-hand with the individual exploits of one man. Fortunately, there appears to be no sign that the wizardry of Lionel Messi is set to run out any time soon.
With four goals so far the Barcelona star is by far the top scorer in the Albiceleste ranks. Not only that, but in the last two knockout games, even without scoring himself, he was heavily involved in the moves that allowed Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain to deliver the killer blows.
Having suffered a dry spell in the last World Cup, Argentina fans are finally seeing the best of their star at the world's most important football tournament. Where there is Messi, there is hope against the Netherlands.