When the whistle blows on Sunday’s final there will be much to reminisce about from this World Cup. Robin Van Persie’s Flying Dutchman header, Germany’s 7-1 drubbing of hosts Brazil and the goals. So many goals.
But how much will we really remember of Argentina? Lionel Messi’s late winner against Iran, perhaps. Gonzalo Higuain’s swivelled finish against Belgium wasn’t bad either. Yet for the most part, La Albiceleste have failed to live up to the zeitgeist of this tournament.
Alejandro Sabella’s side have made it all the way to the final without turning in anything close to a complete performance. At a World Cup that will go down as the most exciting and exhilarating on record, Argentina have been the exception. This World Cup deserves better than Argentina as champions.
BBC journalist, Tim Vickery neatly sums up what it would be like for Brazilians for Argentina to win the tournament on their own patch.
24 years have passed since Argentina last made it this far at a World Cup. In fact, since last lifting the famous trophy in 1986 the South Americans have been tagged as international football’s biggest underachievers (especially with Spain shaking their tag in 2010).
Now the prospect of becoming World Cup winners once again at the spiritual footballing home of Brazil – their fiercest rivals – dangles in front of Argentina like the shiniest of golden carrots.
Germany await them in Sunday’s final at the Maracana. In a way Joachim Low’s side is almost the anti-Argentina, having ripped through the knockout rounds with effortless fluency and edge. While Germany scored 10 times from the round of 16 onwards, Argentina netted just twice.
Rear to stay
Rather bizarrely for a team that they can afford to leave out a player like Carlos Tevez and still have the best frontline at the tournament, Argentina have made it to the final on the back of their industry rather than their attack.
Nobody embodies that quality better than Javier Mascherano. The former Liverpool player is the glue that holds Argentina together. While more erratic talents like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi might wish to pull their team’s shape all over the pitch, with little regard for formation or strategy, Mascherano is the one who maintains their form.
His decision to stay on the pitch after clashing heads with Georginio Wijnaldum in Wednesday’s semi-final was rash, but from a footballing perspective Mascherano’s decision-making is what keeps Argentina coherent.
Yet it is somewhat reflective of how insipid Argentina have been in Brazil this summer that Mascherano – a defensive midfielder-cum-centre back – has been their most impressive player.
And in Sunday’s final against the likes of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mascherano will need to be at his redoubtable best.
While Argentina’s players have thus far failed to catch the imagination, the same cannot be said of the country’s support. Over 50,000 Argentina fans packed out the Maracana for their team’s opening group game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their rousing rendition of the national anthem a legitimately hair-raising spectacle.
It is somewhat shameful that with such backing, they have largely failed to put on a show. So why hasn’t such enthusiasm manifested itself in the players on the pitch?
Off the boil
Argentina’s anemia at this tournament has come as something of a surprise, given their qualification campaign, during which they scored 35 goals from just 16 games.
La Albieceleste’s strength is undoubtedly in attack, with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Lavezzi and Messi to choose from, but it is on the basis of their defence that they have made the final, conceding just three goals in six games to this point.
By allowing an average of just 11.3 shots on their own goal per game Argentina have been one of the stingiest teams at this World Cup (by comparison Germany have allowed 12.7 per game).
Subsequently, their productivity in the final third has taken the hit, with Argentina averaging just 5.5 shots on target per game (Germany average 7.2 per game). Messi didn’t even have a touch of the ball in the opposition penalty area in 120 minutes against Holland.
Although Sabella might not be the only one to blame for this tediousness. The team talk given ahead of extra-time against the Netherlands gave some insight into who the true leader of this Argentina side is, and it’s not the manager.
Messi hunkered down in the centre of the huddle, doling out instructions to his teammates in a manner that goes against his unassuming public persona. All the while Sabella stood aside, arms folded.
That might be the enduring image of this World Cup for Argentina. It’s almost as if we’ve all become preoccupied with waiting around for a moment of magic from Messi, and such moments have arrived at this tournament. In fact, he almost single-handedly dragged his team into the last 16, with four goals in three games.
But beyond Messi, where would this Argentina side rank in the pantheon of great World Cup winning teams? Not very highly, presuming that there is to be no dramatic change of approach for the final.
It’s not that they are a bad team. It’s just that an Argentine win over Germany on Sunday would be an unsatisfying end to the greatest World Cup ever.