I was wishing the day would come that I would be writing a celebratory post for Argentina winning the World Cup... unfortunately, they didnt win it. But is there anything to celebrate? Definitely!
To start with, we finally made it past the quarters and into the final... a feet that eluded Argentina for 24 years since 1990! That was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6... SIX tournaments ago! How old were you back then?
Think of all the Argentine greats that graced us since then: Batistuta, C.Lopez, Riquelme, Veron, Crespo, Ayala, Sorin, Zanetti, Simeone... and and and... The coaches that led us: Basile, Passarella, Bielsa, Pekerman, Maradona. In terms of results, none of them came close to what this generation of 2014 achieved. They might not have played the best football, but in the modern game you just have to sacrifice a bit of style for efficiency and tactical awareness... otherwise Argentina of '02 (probably the most impressive of them all) would have lived a completely different story.
Sabella, Messi and co made it to the final of World Cup 2014, and it being on Brazilian soil, made it all the sweeter. Going into the tournament, lots of question marks loomed over so many aspects of this Argentina team, with the general feeling that the defence and goalkeeper would be our weakness and the attack would make up for all the conceded goals. However this World Cup turned out to be one of opposites for Argentina and could be summarized as two halves: Before the Belgium game and after.
Unfortunately, half of the dubbed "Fantastic 4" up front were struck by injuries before the tournament even began. During May and early June, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain were in a race against time to be fully fit for the opening clash against Bosnia. Although they made it, it proved detrimental to their form throughout the tournament as they were both completely anonymous in the group stage, with only Higuain's flick in Messi's goal vs Bosnia worthy of note.
Di Maria was poor in the group stage, giving away way too many balls and constantly failing to beat the first man whether he was passing or shooting. However despite all that, he was immense for Argentina, bringing much needed life up front with his pace, stamina, and explosive, unpredictable bursts; exactly what Messi needed alongside him as by then, Leo was single handedly dragging Argentina to the knock outs. Di Maria's goal vs Switzerland was a long time coming, and was the perfect platform for him to finally find his feet in this tournament and stand by Messi as partner in crime.
After beating Switzerland in extra time, the team was left begging for form. However, it must be mentioned that all of Bosnia, Iran and Switzerland played very defensively, closing all space in the middle for the Fantastic 4 to function as well as we were so used to seeing in the qualifiers. These were different animals to what they were used to facing in South America. So with Gonzalo and Sergio not producing, Messi was obliged to step up and pull off his magic with well taken goals (3 out of 4 of them scored from outside the box), and an assist for Di Maria's winner in the round of 16.
Despite recording 4 straight victories (albeit by 1 goal margins), Argentina's attack seemed out of sorts. The midfield was one of the busiest of the tournament. Mascherano and Gago orchestrated play in the middle, but in general they desperately lacked creativity. The deal was for Gago to be the hand that feeds Messi as was the case in the qualifiers, however that wasnt going to plan anymore. Gago, who was also injured for a while before the tournament began, struggled to find form.
In terms of defence, Argentina were looking quite solid, but experienced several scary moments as the defensive teams attempted to surprise us on the counter. Garay was sharp as he was all throughout the tournament, but Fernandez was proving to be the weaker link in our back line. As for the fullbacks, Rojo, the man almost everyone (except me) thought would be a problem turned out to be immense for this Argnetina team: rock solid at the back and dangerous going forward putting in crosses and contributing everywhere (also scoring the winner vs Nigeria). Zabaleta was also doing a decent job on the other side.
Between the posts, Romero, another concern for everyone (including me) was doing an excellent job. The Bosnia goal may have been avoidable but he more than made up for it saving Argentina from conceding embarassing goals on several occasions.
By this stage, the problems for Argentina were evident and it was time for Sabella to earn his money... and that's exactly what he did. To a great extent, it was his tactical genius and flexibility that proved to make the difference for Argentina in this World Cup.
Seeing the problems facing the team, and given that few of his players were finding their best form, he did his homework: Fernandez lacked the top level experience needed on the biggest stage, so out he came, and in came the more experienced Martin Demichellis who just came off an excellent season winning the EPL with Manchester City. He proved to be the perfect partner alongside Garay at the back with solid and assured performances. The other significant change was Gago's replacement: Biglia. Seeing that Fernando was not excelling much in defence nor attack, Sabella preferred to go for a more defensive approach with Biglia's introduction, giving his defensive line an extra layer alongside the beast figure of Mascherano in the middle. Together, they were formidable!
Aguero's injury vs Nigeria meant very little, as he was already having a quiet tournament. Sabella brought in Lavezzi as his replacement and it proved to be fruitful as Ezequiel gave the team more energy with his pace and bursting runs, and also contributed more defensively in midfield.
Just when it seemed that Di Maria finally found his form for Argentina (scoring a winner against Switzerland and the assist for Higuain vs Belgium), he got injured and we lost him for good. As a result, Sabella brought in Enzo Perez who became a starter ever since. While he couldnt match Di Maria's pace and energy (let's face it, nobody can), his introduction was still positive as he somewhat added an extra dimension to Argentina's game: excellent skill and possessing better midfielder characteristics.
The result of these changes (whether by initiative or by force), resulted in more of a 4-4-2 formation that gave the team much more needed balance than the 4-3-3 that was looking like an eventual time bomb. The defence became more intact and solid, unpenetratable by even the likes of Hazard, Robben or even Muller for the most part. Suddenly, everyone was talking about Argentina's strong defence, something that would have been hard to imagine only a few weeks ago!
It's true, Argentina's potential asset was supposed to be the front line... but we had to face the reality: They simply were not delivering, and at this point Sabella had to work with the givens. With the defence looking shaky and the injured forward line failing to fire in the goals, his hand was forced to transform the team into a defensive one, relying on solidity at the back and quick counter attacks.
Unfortunately, during this "second half" of Argentina's World Cup 2014 story, we only saw one goal scored by Higuain against Belgium, their last of the tournament. However in the next two games, their performance as a team was exceptional: solid, confident, spirited, committed and determined; characteristics that carried them through the penalty shootout against the Netherlands. Romero was brilliant, saving two penalties while our penalty takers converted every single one of them.
Reaching the final in itself was huge for this battered and exhausted Argentina team. Having lost key players to injury and bad form, and having already played 2 games until the 120nd minute, and with one day less to rest than a cruising Germany team, it was always going to be a tough game for Argentina. It was clear from the beginning: if they were to win this final, they had to do so in 90 minutes, or even less. Germany were flying high, having just demolished Brazil 7-1 and were considered the favorites.
From the kick off, Argentina fought hard. The players were fully concentrated and their work rate was exceptional, closing down every open space Germany could possibly opt for and fiercly counter attacking down the flanks at utmost speed. Lavezzi ran riot against the German back line and Messi caused them all sorts of problems down the right. Chance after chance came, and Argentina were looking like they would somehow clinch it with an eventual goal. But, unfortunately... we all know now that it just didnt happen.
Higuain was presented a golden opportunity and just failed to connect properly with the ball... far from the Gonzalo we know. Lionel Messi had a great chance inside the box, but his shot went wide, begging for the class he shows at the Camp Nou. Later on, Palacio had a chance, but as we were so used to seeing from him every game since the qualifiers, he just wasted it.
Despite not hitting the target once, Argentina were clearly the more dangerous side on the night, and as the clock ticked without a goal, it was looking more and more likely that we would live to regret these lost chances for the rest of our lives. The Argentine players were looking exhausted, playing 120 minutes for a third time, dragging their lifeless bodies to battle the German machines... and eventually, as we all feared, Germany scored. Gotze came off the bench and scored a cracking winner, and that was the end of Argentina's World Cup.
Heartbreak followed for Argentina... for the third consecutive time, they crashed out to the Germans. However, if there was any way to lose this final, this was the way to do it. The players fought hard, they showed character, they created chances and most importantly, they made us all proud. They now return to Buenos Aires with heads held high and will always be remembered for finally breaking the quarter final curse. They defied the odds, made it to the final and almost won it. But in the end they fell narrowly short, losing to a strong, young and ruthless German side worthy of the trophy as well.
The game was always going to be decided by four key factors: Finishing chances, quality of the bench, mental strength and physical endurance... and admittedly, the Germans eventually beat us in all of them. Argentina had their chances, but just couldnt convert. The players off our bench were far off Germany's quality (just compare Gotze's chest and shot to that of Palacio's). In terms of mental strength, it was very even, but in the end the endurance factor gave it all away for us.
Now one would argue: Were we missing Tevez? Wouldnt he have converted those chances instead of Palacio and Higuain? My answer is that such arguments are pointless. We already had quality forwards in Aguero, Higuain and Di Maria, who all failed to find their true form... even Messi seemed to be at 70% of his own standards. Tevez would have most probably been a similar story, if not worse, considering his big-headed attitude which would have only disrupted the team's harmony from the beginning.
So this is Argentina's World Cup 2014 story... heart breaking, yet memorable. Shortcoming, yet successfull. All i can say is that i am extremely proud of this team and this tournament just made me love Argentina more and more. Following the Albiceleste is a way of life, and even if it's filled with heartbreaks and pain, there's no other team i'd rather support... it's just wonderful being a supporter of the most talented, passionate football nation in the world. Glory days WILL return, im sure of it. But in the meantime, i will continue this lovely ride...