World Cup 2014 final: Argentina live on a knife-edge but regret not making a kill
Alejandro Sabella's men had their chances but didn't take them
At the Maracana
Sunday 13 July 2014
Diego Simeone may have never graced this stage, but the former Argentina international had a perfect phrase for the approach that took his country this far.
They play with a "knife between their teeth". The consequence is that it means every single one of their matches are constantly on a knife-edge. This tense but hugely tenacious occasion was no different. Argentina did not change.
There has been a curiosity, and even a contradiction, to Alejandro Sabella’s team throughout this World Cup. For all their grit, the defence has always looked close to giving way. At the same time, a backline persistently on the edge has compensated by always displaying an edge.
On the occasions when they were suddenly stretched, which has been often, a surge of energy and application has usually been enough to cover. That doggedness has been crucial to this defiant run to the final. Although the attack as a unit have played beneath themselves, many of the individual defensive players have hugely raised their level.
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It is the kind of thing that can be hugely productive over the relatively short span of an international tournament, but is not exactly the best long-term strategy, and always has the potential to be instantly unravelled with a single moment that cruelly undoes them.
That crux created a very specific tension to the opening exchanges. Prior to the final, Argentina had only conceded three goals in six games, but that in itself was almost misleading. None of those goals had come in the knock-outs; only one had happened in a game that actually mattered in the group stage, and that itself arrived at 84 minutes against Bosnia-Herzegovina when they were already 2-0 up.
As such, Argentina had not yet conceded a goal that had truly tested them. They had not yet been behind in the tournament.
So, given how exquisite Germany can be when cutting teams apart on the break – as Brazil found out all too painfully in that searing 7-1 defeat – the wonder was what would happen to Sabella’s side if they did go behind against a team such as this.
Would they cave in? There were two or three typical early scares, but also characteristically all the tenacious responses.
Twice Germany looked as if they were about to finally get in behind that backline, only for Pablo Zabaleta and – of course – and Javier Mascherano to put their bodies on the line in that ferociously full-blooded manner.
Those efforts still paled next to the power of Martin Demichelis’s tackle on Thomas Müller. With a loose ball suddenly looking like it would leave the top-scoring German forward free on the right, Demichelis picked up his pace and thundered into the 25-year-old.
It followed on from the way the Manchester City centre-half also picked up his form towards the end of Premier League title run-in, but he was not the only player offering something extra.
Argentina’s attack initially looked like were doing that, too. After a World Cup in which no one other than Messi and, occasionally, Angel di Maria had offered true creative spark; Ezequiel Lavezzi seemed intent on making up for the absence of the latter. He was motor-powered for much of this time on the pitch until going off, with a blazing first run completely opening up the German half and almost creating a chance. It really should have done, only for the key last touch to be a little off.
Argentina were persistently pouncing into those counter-attacks dangerously, and clearly targeting Benedikt Höewedes with every attack down the right.
Lavezzi utterly embarrassed him once, before Messi did so twice. Those surges should have yielded passes superior to imprecise cut-backs we eventually saw, but Argentina then claimed their best early chance through German error.
The previously unflappable Toni Kroos somehow sent the ball back towards his own goal, but Gonzalo Higuain only went on to somehow miss. That was his moment.
The worrying reality for Argentina was that he never looked like scoring it, never looked like seizing it. He then did not look at the offside line as, although Higuain had the ball in the net minutes later, the flag was up.
Either side of that, Zabaleta again battered away a German attack just when they looked like they were going to force their way through, before Höewedes forced a header on to the post. Gonzalo Higuain scored but it was ruled out for offside
The metalwork could almost have served as a tightrope, at once showing Argentina’s bravado, but also how close they constantly were to teetering over.
The tightness of those margins was emphasised again on resumption of the second half, but not in the manner anyone would expected given the player at the centre of it.
On 47 minutes, Higuain excellently set up someone else’s moment, but this time it was Messi that somehow missed.
Turning on the ball in the box, he tried to swerve it beyond Manuel Neuer’s reach only to also swerve it the wrong side of the post.
It would have been a poor miss for any player. For Messi, it was an awful one. In a game as tense as this, and in a World Cup where he had been so magnificently minimalist, they didn’t need him suddenly getting his angles just a fraction off.
Messi did, of course, persevere, and every touch he had carried that air of menace. By that point, the tension had given way to something a touch more open.
Germany were getting more space around the Argentina box, Joachim Löw’s defence was getting that bit looser.
The knife, however, was eventually plunged.
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