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Sergio Romero took Argentina to the final all right but the man who ensured that they stayed in the hunt with another superb all-round midfield show was Javier Mascherano. If Lionel Messi is this team’s inspiration, Mascherano is its engine, its heart. Or as coach Alejandro Sabella said, “its symbol, its emblem.”
Mascherano played all of the 480 minutes Argentina were on the pitch till the semifinals. And he was there for 120 minutes and more at the Arena Corinthians. It was Mascherano’s lunging tackle that stopped Arjen Robben from firing a late winner.
“That we went into the semi-finals meant a huge weight had been lifted of his shoulders. He has Olympic gold medals (2004, 2008) too. I don’t need to say much about him apart from the fact that whenever one of his coaches goes to another club, he wants to take Mascherano with him,” said Sabella.
One of the first things Sabella did was to make Messi the captain, the journey starting in Kolkata in September 2011. It happened because Mascherano agreed to hand over the armband to his Barcelona teammate. Mascherano is at the centre of a pre-game huddle and the most expressive. Before the quarterfinal against Belgium, he told the team: “I want joy again and we need to give everything to get that.” They don’t call him El Jefecito (The Little Chief) for nothing.
“This shirt means so much to me, it’s hard to explain,” Mascherano has said.
Mascherano stayed deep in own half for most of the semifinal but with vision and accuracy repeatedly found Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Messi on the inside right channel.
And he was always there to provide cover to the defence. One minute to go for the tie-breaker, Mascherano produced another sliding challenge to deny Robben showing why Barcelona make him play as central defender season after season while they look for a specialist. Typically, he has done it without complaint.
After victories against Belgium and Holland, Mascherano has been seen weeping. Having been eliminated in the quarterfinals of the past two World Cups and being an unused substitute in 2002, Mascherano, 30, knows what getting this far means. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon,” said Sabella on Wednesday.
The Maracana now awaits another dogged Mascherano show. On it could hang Argentina’s fate.