Sergio Romero and the 5 Surprises of Argentina's World Cup Campaign
The Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, and cities across the country, were invaded by crowds on Wednesday following a gruelling penalty shoot-out win against the Netherlands. That win meant that the two-time winners would be returning to the World Cup final against Germany, the first time in 24 years they will take part in the tournament's decider.
The Albiceleste were always posted as one of the favourites to go far in Brazil. A kind-looking draw up to the last four, a wealth of stars up front and the abilities of the peerless Lionel Messi have been presented as the main reasons why Argentina could be challenging for glory in the Maracana Stadium.
But if the progress of Alejandro Sabella's men has not been too much of a surprise, their journey to the Maracana has involved plenty of twists and turns on the way. Here are five things the Albiceleste faithful were not expecting when the party began all the way back in June with a victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
5. Mascherano a Midfield Creative Force
The quality of Barcelona's Javier Mascherano has never been in much doubt. But the combative midfielder's ability on the ball has been consistently underrated during his career, overshadowed by his more evident skills in harrying and recovering.
Indeed, there were more than a few pundits prior to the World Cup who made a convincing case that El Jefecito should be used in the same way as in the Camp Nou, pushed into the middle of defence to shore up a potentially weak area for the Albiceleste.
Mascherano's appearance, alongside team-mates Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi, on the shortlist for the World Cup Golden Ball shows the fallacy of that thought. As well as his incredible commitment and leadership on the field, the star's distribution has been the cog around which the entire Albiceleste machine has revolved.
A brilliant pass completion rate of 86.6 percent, according to FIFA.com, shows Masche's brilliance with the ball at his feet, allowing Argentina to keep possession and build from deep.
4. The Defence Has Stood Up to All Challenges
The consensus appeared almost universal before the start of the World Cup. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria in the team, Argentina had the ability to score goals, and lots of them. Which was just as well, because a paper-thin defence was destined to unfold in the toughest matches.
Taking that opinion almost as a challenge, those at the back for the Albiceleste have been single-mindedly determined to prove otherwise. There were some wobbles early on, but the entrance of Martin Demichelis for the fragile Federico Fernandez was the final piece of the puzzle, and the unit has been formidable since.
Three clean sheets in the knock-out stages—against the attacking talents of Switzerland, Belgium and Netherlands—explains more than anything else why Argentina will be fighting for their third World Cup title against Germany on Sunday.
3. Estudiantes Stalwarts Turn into Key Figures
International management is always a fraught business. Given such little time to get to know players, it makes sense for coaches to lean on those they are familiar with at the club level. But at the same time, this selection policy leaves the man in charge in danger of nepotism accusations, particularly if their picks do not perform.
Fortunately for Alejandro Sabella, that has not been an issue in the 2014 World Cup. The Argentina boss has seen two of his potentially dubious choices, former Estudiantes stars Enzo Perez and Marcos Rojo, prove all the critics wrong and enjoy fantastic tournaments so far.
Fellow Pincha alumnus Federico Fernandez may have fallen flat in the middle of defence, but Rojo has been a rock on the left, while Perez contributed balance and security on the ball when he replaced the injured Angel Di Maria against Belgium and the Netherlands.
Sabella is astute enough to understand that in the pressure of a World Cup campaign, it is vital to trust the players around you. On that front, his former stars in La Plata have delivered exactly what has been needed in the Albiceleste's run.
2. The Goals Have Not Flown
Five wins and one draw on the way to a World Cup final is a good record by anyone's standards. But what has really stood out about the Argentina campaign in 2014, with all the attacking talent they boast and a sackload of goals during the qualifying competition, is that those victories have been of the hard-fought variety.
The knock-out stages were negotiated with two 1-0 wins and a goal-less draw defined by penalties; in the entire tournament, the Albiceleste have never managed to win by more than a single strike. Lionel Messi has been his usual imperious self, even while contending with fierce marking and deep defences, but the likes of Higuain and Aguero have been rather disappointing.
Injuries, specifically to El Kun and Di Maria, have affected the team's rhythm up front. They have also been confronted in every match with a mountain of defenders; even the Netherlands played, at times, with six at the back to contain the South Americans.
Perhaps against Germany, who will not sit back to such a great extent, the gaps will finally appear for Messi and his attacking companions.
1. The Unbeatable Romero
The common belief in football is that goalkeepers, more than perhaps any other position on the pitch, need regular playing time to build their focus and confidence. Certainly, playing a No. 1 in the World Cup who had spent almost the entire season with Ligue 1 club Monaco on the bench seemed an unnecessary risk for a team as good as Argentina.
With two penalty saves confirming his side's place in the World Cup final, and a nomination for the best goalkeeper award to boot, the Albiceleste's inspirational Sergio Romero has gleefully dispelled that notion in a brilliant tournament for the ex-Sampdoria stopper.
With just three goals conceded in six matches, and three consecutive clean sheets, El Chiquito has proven himself worthy of the No. 1 jersey in Brazil. Whether Argentina win or lose on Sunday, it is hard to believe that Romero will be spending another season on the sidelines.