Netherlands vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Argentina are happy to resort to roughing up Arjen Robben, says Martin Demichelis

Despite having ‘fantastic four’ Sabella’s squad have promoted fight over flair

Before a knife-edge semi-final in Sao Paulo, one thing is certain: Argentina won’t be going down, or going out, without a fearsome fight.

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Martin Demichelis revealed so much of the attitude that underscores this team when asked by his country’s media how they plan to deal with Arjen Robben. The defender put it in the starkest terms, and also left in something of a goad towards the Dutch forward.

“Because he doesn’t like physical contact, you have to make him feel it,” Demichelis declared. “You have to get under his skin.

“We have to be aggressive, to make the Dutch feel the passion of the Argentine player, especially to Robben.”

Neither that aggression nor passion has ever been in question, but this World Cup had already reinforced it before Demichelis spoke. It has been one of the defining traits of a campaign that has seen Argentina reach the semi-finals for the first time in 24 years. They have fought for this, and are not prepared to let it slip for lack of desire.

It has only deepened the connection with their raucous support, and almost reflected the energy in the stands. While Argentinian crowds have provided some of the best atmospheres at this World Cup, there has been an edge to them. It has got to the point where Brazilian police are making precautions in case they get to the final.

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Martin Demichelis

 

The players have repeatedly made mention of the support, and of the motivation to give the crowd something to fully cheer. Although so many around the squad have been struck by how a spirit of unity and easy camaraderie has grown, it is also conspicuous how quickly the group can focus to work hard. They are the only team in the tournament to have not yet had a day off. Similarly, although their stellar front line has not yet fully fired, they have been more than prepared to dig in to compensate. It has arguably been their greatest quality beyond the match-turning ability of Lionel Messi.

One comment around the base in Belo Horizonte is that the “fantastic four” – Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain – have given way to “the 11 warriors”. Every display has underlined that, every match has shown their overwhelming grit.

The endings to the knock-out games against Switzerland and Belgium provided the best examples. With those matches coming down to the slimmest of margins, there was a dogged defiance to the way they disrupted attacks. Each tackle was infused with a rare tenacity, each clearance driven away with rage. While players such as Aguero have been unable to reach their best, more abrasive types like Javier Mascherano have readily stepped in.

The Barcelona midfielder is not captain, but is seen as the “manager on the pitch”. It was his team talk about no longer wanting to “eat shit” that set the mood for the 1-0 quarter-final win over Belgium, it was his action that provided one of the images of Argentina’s tournament.

In the midst of battle against the Belgians, the five-foot-eight Mascherano stood right up to the towering figures of Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel. The 30-year-old also echoed the sentiments of Demichelis when asked about the difficult conditions.

“Everything begins to have an effect,” Mascherano said. “You feel everything, but the wish, the desire to do something important: that has a greater effect than fatigue.”

 

It is an assertive attitude that has also translated to their outlook on the pitch. Given how open the Argentina defence has been, and how susceptible they look to pace, the logical solution would be to sit back a little more against Robben. Demichelis doesn’t see it that way. Having come so far, they are not willing to stand off.

“He is a phenomenon and it’s impossible to know which way he’s going to go next but he’s not a fighter,” the Manchester City defender said of Robben.

“Therefore you’ve got to attack him because, the more you stand off, the nearer to the goal you take him and the less margin for error you have.”

Manager Alejandro Sabella this time didn’t make the error of allowing his selected formation to be leaked before kick-off, as it was before the opening game against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The suggestions, however, are that they will play a 4-3-3 with Enzo Perez coming in for the injured Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi shuttling back.

Argentina will remain adventurous. Finally, there is the effect of all that on the player who matters most. Messi echoes the squad. He is more than prepared to grab this opportunity. The Barcelona No 10 sees it as a prize greater than any other in his career, better than his three Champions League medals.

 

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“As a player, winning a World Cup is the best there is. It’s something you dream about when you are a kid and it never disappears. I have asked my Barcelona teammates Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Gerard] Pique what it is like to lift the trophy, and they couldn’t explain.

“We will do everything to make this dream a reality. To play a World Cup final with the great atmosphere of the Maracana is something that every player dreams of, but first we have to make sure we get there.”

Messi’s mood had been much commented on in the build-up to the World Cup, but it has provided yet another positive for Argentina. All state he has been one of the happiest players in the squad, more thrilled at their progress than anyone.

“I am feeling positive pressure,” Messi said. “It’s a great honour to be captain of Argentina. I want to pay back the trust given in me leading Argentina to the World Cup.”

The rest of the squad are evidently prepared to follow.

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