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Neil Humphreys
Monday, Jul 14, 2014

Sports

Defend or die

The New Paper | Neil Humphreys | Monday, Jul 14, 2014

FINAL: GERMANY v ARGENTINA

(Monday, 3am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141, StarHub TV Ch 223, Mediacorp okto)

Death by boredom may prove to be Alejandro Sabella's salvation. Argentina's greatest weapon against Germany's newfound fluidity is defensive dullness.

The more they bore, the greater the odds of Lionel Messi unexpectedly springing the trap.

Brazil made the mistake of charging across no-man's land with peashooters, the Germans gleefully cutting them down with relentless machine-gun fire.

Argentina will not follow their South American rivals and commit strategic suicide.

On the contrary, Sabella loves a defensive challenge. He spoke warmly after the Holland victory of surviving a war of attrition and prevailing in a stultifying, tactical scrap.

The soft-spoken manager favours restraint over reckless abandon. Defensive fortitude is his forte.

Initial assumptions that Argentina's defence would be their undoing failed to take into account Sabella's track record.

At Estudiantes, he preferred to restrict the opposition, wearing them down through slow and steady suffocation.

His penchant for ball-winning enforcers has served him well in Brazil, particularly through the knockout stages where Argentina saw off Switzerland, Belgium and Holland without conceding.

Javier Mascherano is the midfield mainstay; his towering performance against the Dutch likely to be the subject of considerable discussion among Joachim Loew's staff.

Fans' favourite and Messi's old mate Fernando Gago got the nod in the earlier games, but his game has stagnated and Sabella didn't hesitate in replacing him with Lucas Biglia.

Biglia's performance in the semi-final mirrored that of most of his teammates; unfussy, uneventful and mostly unmemorable. But he quietly denied Wesley Sneijder the space the Dutch No. 10 enjoyed against Costa Rica.

Sabella has a soft spot for the more controllable 5-3-2 which he persisted with in the opening game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, until Messi manipulated a mini-mutiny in the dressing room and Argentina attacked with greater conviction.

But Brazil tried that against Germany and will now lick their wounds for decades to come. Attacking those Teutonic titans without the appropriate resources is poking a sleeping pit-bull with a stick. Annihilation awaits.

Luiz Felipe Scolari's misguided and uncharacteristic attempt to resurrect the spirit of joga bonito backfired so spectacularly against Germany that Brazilian football bigwigs are promising to tear down their archaic infrastructure and start again.

AWARE

Sabella won't be so naive in his selections. Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta were kept on the tightest of leashes against Holland and the pair won't be cut any slack when they meet Mesut Oezil and Thomas Mueller at the Maracana.

Toni Kroos will believe he's been wheel-clamped by Mascherano. He won't be able to move without Argentina's natural-born leader following him around.

With Mascherano scampering between the lines like a sword-wielding general on horseback shouting "advance on my signal", he also offers an unlikely attacking outlet. He played more incisive balls than Messi against Holland.

And that's the fundamental difference between Germany against Brazil and Germany against Argentina. The Germans haven't faced such an enigmatic pest before. They haven't faced Messi.

In theory, the maestro should not overly concern Loew's men.

Their alchemists have conjured a potent mix of resilience and ingenuity at the right time. They beat Brazil 7-1. They have nothing to fear.

But still, they haven't faced Messi.

Hansi Flick, Loew's assistant coach, said: "We saw the way Holland were able to keep Messi in check… And we've also got a plan. But we're not going to reveal that here to you."

The Germans' instinctive wariness of Argentina's No. 10 underlines the unexpected synergy between attacking wizard and cautious coach.

Messi doesn't always like Sabella's defensive approach, but it could liberate him.

For all his side's attacking intent, Loew cannot neglect Messi and his unique ability to achieve maximum impact through minimal input. Holland crowded him out of the semi-final, pulling two defenders, Georginio Wijnaldum and even Sneijder towards Argentina's magnetic force.

The tactic isolated Messi, but also Arjen Robben. He had no one to play with. His friends had all gone off with that Barcelona kid with the fancy tricks.

That gave Mascherano room to manoeuvre. He can then out seek out Messi. Iran and Switzerland know what happens next.

Sabella is happiest when his defenders suppress, stifle and strangle a game, causing death by a thousand sliding tackles and rightly feels he has nothing to apologise for.

Delighted Argentina fans celebrating their first World Cup Final appearance in 24 years soon drown out the dissenting purists. Argentina will sit back and face the heat like tourists sunbathing on Copacabana Beach.

And then, they will look for Messi. They have to find him only once.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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