For a game that is expected to be a rather easy Argentina win, manager Alejandro Sabella came out with a hard edge and hard line yesterday.
His team may be on the brink of the last 16 but, if you are to believe some around the South American side’s camp, they are also on the brink of another debate. The build-up to today’s fixture with Iran has been dominated by more discussion about the team’s formation and, most notably, whether Lionel Messi forced change upon the manager at half-time of the 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sabella was defiant, and seemingly definitive. There is apparently no issue with Messi. Everything the player said was in the spirit of the squad. “The atmosphere of the group is perfect.” Argentina will play 4-3-3 today... but Sabella is still willing to change if a fixture requires it.
The real question could be whether Messi requires it. Something of an undercurrent to Argentina’s campaign regards the influence their greatest player has accumulated, and if the ego has now grown with his talent. For his part, Messi was extremely measured in his comments about the system following the Bosnia match, during which Argentina switched from a restrictive 5-3-2 at half-time. Sabella claimed he had no problem with any of that.
“I was not hurt by Leo’s comments and he’d already said it before,” the manager said. “It didn’t bother me at all and the atmosphere of the group is perfect. Every day players give interviews. You can talk to them individually and we know there’s off-the-record information at all times and we are all free to say whatever we want. We are all professionals. The day after the match, the coach decided who goes to the press conference and I told Messi to go. I fully trust my players from a human and professional standpoint and they trust me.
Argentina 2 Bosnia-Herzegovina 1 player ratings
Argentina 2 Bosnia-Herzegovina 1 player ratings
1/22 Argentina: Romero 7/10
Saved well from several Bosnian efforts without ever being really tested. Got caught out of position for late Ibisevic goal but played well.
2/22 Zabaleta 6
Not at his flying best and got caught out for late Bosnia goal but did fine overall.
3/22 Rojo 6
Yellow carded for a bad foul early on and had to be careful from then on, not bad but needs to get better.
4/22 Garay 7
In charge of the defence and kept Dzeko quiet, solid at the back.
5/22 Fernandez 6
Not a poor performance by any means but lacked that sparkle from full-back.
6/22 Campagnaro 4
Very little on offer and rightly removed at half-time.
7/22 Rodriguez 4
Substitued at halftime after ineffective first 45.
8/22 Mascherano 8
Argentina’s best player in the first half and good throughout second. Solid, strong and even had a couple of half decent efforts at goal
9/22 Aguero 6
Nowhere near his flowing best but good enough to cause problems at times.
10/22 Messi 8
Very quiet night for first hour but produced the only real moment of true quality with his quite sublime solo goal to win the match.
11/22 Di Maria 6
Some nice flicks and tricks but no real attacking thrust.
12/22 Bosnia: Begovic 7
Solid between the posts but helpless for either goal. Looked comfortable throughout and will be important in future games.
13/22 Mujdza 6
Did fine without really making any highlights or mistakes.
14/22 Kolasinac 6
Very unlucky to have own-goal to his name, helpless for it. Recovered well and played his part in defence after early mistake.
15/22 Besic 6
Like all the Bosnian back-four, did well to keep Argentina to relatively little chances, couldn’t get close to Messi for his goal though.
16/22 Bicakcic 6
Had a chance right at the death to put a good ball in but looked too tired. Did well in defence for the most part.
17/22 Pjanic 7
Played well in attack and got back to help defence throughout, good performance.
18/22 Spahic 5
Picked up a yellow card for bad foul but coped OK in midfield.
19/22 Hajrovic 8
Had several efforts at goal and was Bosnia’s best player. Needed that slight bit of extra quality to turn his chances into goals but did very well.
20/22 Dzeko 5
Tough task as the lone striker and never really had a sniff at goal. Bosnia need him to be better the their next two games.
21/22 Misimovic 5
Busy but ultimately not a major impact on the game.
22/22 Lulic 7
Did well up and down the wing and can be happy with his performance. Good pass for Ibisevic’s goal.
“We have a very strong group spirit in the team and I’m not hurt by what he says. I discuss football with my players. It’s good to have an open dialogue because we can learn from each other.”
That seemingly didn’t extend to the media, as Sabella stated he just doesn’t listen to external criticism.
“We don’t look for enemies outside, otherwise we’d always be looking behind our backs,” he said. “We have other important things to fix.”
He certainly fixed the first game. “The match I anticipated didn’t happen,” Sabella said. The game was tight, we were only 1-0 up, that’s always a slim lead. We needed something else, to change something to get better, because we weren’t putting in a good game.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t change back in future.
“The system is 4-3-3, but I don’t close any door. If we have to change, we will change. If you don’t criticise yourself, people say you’re stubborn. If you do, they say you’re weak. I think about what’s best for the group, and not about anything else.”
Sabella did completely acknowledge that Argentina “have to get better”.
The irony is that, for all the controversy, an element of conflict could genuinely complete the team.
Argentina did end up looking formidable despite the formation issue, and the ability to switch and prevent teams second-guessing them could become significant, especially with a star as unpredictable as Messi in the team. He remains the only player in this World Cup capable of influencing the destination of the trophy with his own individual performances.
That could become all the more important now that the finest team of the last decade are gone. Spain’s demise has made this more open than any tournament since 2006. Sabella feels Argentina can yet close it out.
“We have confidence in our strengths, and we think we have the capacity to win. However, to think we can’t lose would be silly.”
The greater danger against Iran is a frustrating draw, especially given how Carlos Queiroz’s team resolutely defend. Sabella had a bullish response for that too.
“It’s about an attitude to life, as much as football, to grab it by the scruff straight away, and give 100 per cent.”