Javier Mascherano Will Be as Vital as Messi for Argentina in World Cup Final

Dan Colasimone@@ArgentinaFWContributor IJuly 10, 2014

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JULY 09: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar of the Netherlands challenges Javier Mascherano of Argentina during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between the Netherlands and Argentina at Arena de Sao Paulo on July 9, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Underlining a fantastic World Cup with one of the great midfield performances against the Netherlands in the semi-finals, Javier Mascherano proved why he will be so vital for Argentina in the final.

Lionel Messi is Argentina's official captain, and he leads by example on the pitch, but Mascherano is the team's heart and soul.

Memories of last time he played Germany in a World Cup match must still haunt the diminutive defensive midfielder.

In the quarter-final of the 2010 tournament, Mascherano was left exposed by then-coach Diego Maradona's abysmal tactical setup.

Forced to deal with a rampant German midfield almost entirely on his own, Argentina's captain at the time was completely overwhelmed, and his side went down 4-0.

Guided by a far more pragmatic tactician this time around in Alejandro Sabella, the Albiceleste have shown they are much better conditioned to maintain a solid defensive structure.

In this more rigid formation, Mascherano has excelled, invoking memories of legendary Argentine defensive midfielders of the past, such as Oscar Ruggeri.

Though he has played as a central defender in recent times for his club side, Barcelona, the "Little Chief" stepped back into the role he is most naturally suited to for his national team.

In Argentine football, the No. 5 position is considered the second most influential after the No. 10. 

Mascherano may be wearing No. 14 on his back, but he is the side's "cinco," the player who shields the back four when the team is defending and acts as a deep-lying passing hub when they have the ball.

He has carried out both tasks brilliantly.

@TwoPointFiveTip Javier Mascherano tackle was the highlight of the game http://t.co/JD4LFZFtYI

— WC2014 MOTM Bet (@ManOTheMatchBet) July 10, 2014

According to Squawka, Mascherano has made more tackles than any other player at the World Cup, with 22.

His defensive value lies not just in his tackling ability, but also in his strategic nous and his competitive aggression.

Against midfield opponents who usually dwarf him in size, Mascherano acts as Argentina's enforcer. He is essentially Messi's bodyguard, ensuring that opponents who overdo it with the fouling will be met with controlled counterfire.

He is the Albiceleste's "caudillo," or strong man and leader, in the middle of the pitch. He can be seen directing the players around him as well as rousing his teammates when they need lifting, as he did with goalkeeper Sergio Romero before the penalty shootout with the Netherlands.

As for his job of instigating Argentina's attacking moves, the statistics, via FIFA, show him to be the top passer of the World Cup, having made 478 passes, more than any other player, at a completion rate of 87 percent. 

Explicame la Argentina en una imagen. Bueno: pic.twitter.com/IHgYMQbMD8

— Gustavo Mascherano (@gstreger) July 5, 2014

That aspect of his game has improved markedly since he joined Barcelona.

Against the Dutch, Mascherano put on his best display of the competition, perhaps as good of a showing as any central midfielder has produced at Brazil 2014.

He was both ferocious and unflappable, popping up all over the pitch to drive his side forward and put out defensive fires.

When Argentina face the German machine on Sunday, Mascherano will need to be just as good, if not better.

Whether the South Americans win or lose, their midfield general can counted on to play the match of his life.