From leaving it for the last, literally, in South Africa to qualifying for Brazil with two games to spare, it’s been some turnaround for Argentina. Lionel Messi has reproduced his Barcelona form for the national team and after a long time things are beginning to look good for the Albiceleste.
In Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria, Argentina have an attacking quartet that can end the 28-year wait for a third World Cup trophy. And in Alejandro Sabella, Argentina have a coach who is as self-effacing as Diego Maradona, who helmed the team in 2010, is not.
Argentina have been handed a good draw that should see them win Group F ahead of debutants Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran and African champions Nigeria and advance to a last-16 meeting with the second-placed team in Group E, made up of France, Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras.
Sabella though played down Argentina’s chances, choosing instead to focus on trying to break the quarterfinal jinx. Argentina couldn’t get beyond in 2006 and 2010, their campaign unhinged by Germany on both occasions. The last time Argentina reached the semifinals was in 1990 when Maradona was captain.
“It’s very difficult to become world champions. We mustn’t believe we’re the best. In fact, we know we’re not the best, but we are a (world) power,” said Sabella recently.
“We can’t get involved in triumphalism... We must remain emotionally balanced and the more so when we go out onto the pitch.”
Balance is a key word for Sabella, who has built a harmonious squad. He appointed Messi as skipper — the journey starting in Kolkata when Argentina played Venezuela in an international friendly in September 2011 — and did that with the consent of Javier Mascherano, the former skipper who is a key midfielder and can also play as centre-back.
He has also got Messi to play in his preferred position, usually behind Sergio Aguero and Higuain, and the skipper responded with 12 goals including two hattricks in 2012, equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record but in nine games, three less than what it took the man known as ‘Batigol’.
And Sabella has been insistent on keeping out Carlos Tevez ignoring his stellar form at Juventus. Tevez, Sabella feels, is too individualistic. Sabella has the tactical nous to weather the mounting difficulties as the tournament progresses. The only criticism against Sabella has come over his tendency to play five defenders on the road in the 16-game qualifying campaign.