World Cup finals are all about ‘toe poke’ and ‘brain freeze’ moments. Zinadine Zidane’s brain freeze cost France their second Julius Rimet trophy in 2006. Four years later, an Arjen Robben toe poke miss denied Holland their first ever world cup. In between, a Fernando Torres toe strike (in Euro 2008 finals) gave Spain a six year ruthless domination on the top of world football. The difference in effect is so stark.
Alejandro Sabella led Argentina to their best ever finish in an international event in two decades. He gave stability and confidence to a lop sided team – star studded strikers who went out of form and work in progress defenders who brought in their best game. His strategy worked, mostly. But he won’t sleep in peace for couple of brain freeze moments which cost Argentina the cup.
Sabella made three gambles in his team selection.
1) Choosing Sergio Romero (benched most of the season) over red hot Willy Caballero.
2) Not going by Messi’s wishes and dropping creative midfielder Ever Banega.
3) Picking Rodrigo Palacio over the Serie A Scudetto winner with 19 goals, Carlos Tevez.
Romero had an inconsistent world cup – with nervousness in group stages, solidity in knock outs, heroics in semi-final penalty shootout and giving away near post goals in his first and last matches. Overall, though, he exceeded expectations, considering Argentina conceded just four goals at Brazil.
Argentina struggled for creativity in middle of the park once Di Maria got injured, but in Biglia and Perez they got solidity. Banega’s inclusion would have demanded a change of system with Messi playing further up and Argentina, more attacking. Too many ‘ifs’ in that scenario, hence can be argued that Banega’s exclusion wasn’t decisive.
But there’s little defence on not finding Tevez’s name in the Argentina starting eleven. Carlitos is a dressing room menace for sure but the nightmare which Palacios inflicted on Argentinean fans at Brazil can’t be forgotten. He came as a late substitute in all key games, made limited incisions, mispassed frequently and missed easy one on one game winning chance, every game – including in semis and the final. One can’t help but think that Tevez would have converted most of those opportunities.
However Sabella’s monumental brain freeze moment came on half time at Rio De Janerio. Ezequiel Lavezzi was best player on pitch in the first 45mins, tormenting Germany down both flanks with his pace and guile. Each of Argentina’s incisions during that half initiated from his boots. For a super display he was rewarded with a stint in the bench for rest of the game! Replacing him was an unfit, out of form Sergio Aguero, who in reality should have been sent off in second half.
On the semifinal night Lavezzi was head down murmuring prayers on the bench, unable to see his team’s shootout victory. He wouldn’t have been able to see the rest of the finals too, from that bench.
Lavezzi deserved to start all games ahead of Gonzalo Higuain as central striker. The latter’s super season with Napoli seemed faint memory when he struggled with form and injury entire world cup. He missed easy chances galore – vs Bosnia, Iran, all the way to the final. In 21st min he was clear one on one vs Neuer and instead of realizing the time at hand, taking a touch or two, he went for a rash shot. Someone tweeted ‘Higuain has just missed the world cup”. Nine minutes later he poked into German net from an offside position, when he had clear view of the ball coming in and the defenders in front. A striker of his calibre should have timed his run a lot, lot better. This offside act from good view, repeated in second half too. It was that kind of tournament from El Pipita. The worst player on pitch when Germany humbled Argies four nil, four years ago, will possibly retire with a tag of never doing well for his country in big games.
Messi too messed a toe poke on 48th minute, a moment which could have given him status of the greatest footballer ever. He was one on one with Neuer, on his left foot and defenders scrambling. In national colours, he will live Robben’s life for some time now, possibly, forever.
Make no mistake, one goal was always going to be enough for Argentina to win this cup. They had better chances entire game, and while Germany possessed domination, before Mario Gotze struck, the sky blue and whites had clocked past 500 minutes without conceding a goal. One goal was always going to be enough for them.