When Argentina take on the Netherlands in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, it will be a case of one in, one out in terms of Lionel Messi’s supporting cast.
First the bad news: The man who came into the tournament on the back of a sensational climax to the season with Real Madrid and who appeared most capable of preventing Argentina becoming a one-man Messi show, Angel Di María, will miss the match with a thigh injury. On the positive side, though, striker Sergio Agüero has been passed fit to make his return from a hamstring strain suffered in Argentina’s final group game against Nigeria. Both situations prompt much consideration for coach Alejandro Sabella.
The absence of Di María is a significant blow. The 26-year-old had started to come to the fore after a slow start in Brazil, scoring an extra-time winner in the Round of 16 against Switzerland and then helping create the only goal of the game against Belgium in the quarterfinals before having to be taken off. But it is not just those decisive moments that Di María offers, but the balance that he brings to the team.
Di María excelled in qualifying for the world Cup and in the latter part of the season with Real Madrid on the left of a midfield three. His ability to drive forward was crucial in linking the midfield to the attack for Argentina. Following Agüero’s injury, Di María’s versatility was also key in allowing Argentina to successfully switch to more of a 4-2-3-1. His absence may now provoke a further rethink.
Enzo Pérez replaced Di María against Belgium and the man who has operated in central midfield of late for Benfica played a more conservative role on the right side. It was a situation that worked well because Argentina already had the lead and didn’t need to push for a goal. It remains to be seen whether Sabella would start in such a way against a Netherlands team comfortable in counter-attack mode.
The return of Agüero only adds to Sabella’s dilemma. Agüero’s relationship with Messi had been hugely impressive in qualifying, but neither the Manchester City striker nor Gonzalo Higuain made any impact playing ahead of Messi in the three games they played together in Brazil. It looked all too compact and narrow. Given that Argentina produced their most cohesive performance of the competition last time out and Higuain finally came to life with a fine goal-scoring display, bringing back Agüero, who may not be fully fit, would be a big gamble. At the same time, choosing to leave a player of Agüero’s ability on the bench for Argentina’s first World Cup semifinal since 1990 would be a decision that would surely be used against him should his team bow out.
Elsewhere, Sabella’s selection for what is a rematch of the 1978 World Cup final appears fairly straightforward. Marcos Rojo is set to return to the lineup at left-back, having impressed before his suspension. Elsewhere, the changes Sabella made to the team last time out were entirely vindicated. Martin Demichelis has been a target for much criticism, some of it justified, much if it not, but the now ponytail-less Manchester City defender produced an assured performance alongside Ezequiel Garay. Certainly he looks a better bet than Federico Fernandez, who was a major weak spot during his time on the pitch.
And Lucas Biglia also came in to give a tidy display in midfield. While not as gifted in possession as the man he replaced, Fernando Gago, Biglia was composed and provided more of a presence alongside Javier Mascherano. Ideally, Gago would be the man to occupy the role, chiefly because of his ability to produce incisive passes for Messi, but the Boca Juniors and former Real Madrid midfielder has yet to shake off his poor recent club form as well perhaps as an injury coming into the tournament.
With the Netherlands potentially missing enforcer Nigel de Jong and fellow midfielder Leroy Fer, Sabella will feel that the midfield is an area where his side have a real chance to come out on top. That would provide the springboard for Messi to continue to wield his magic and take Argentina through to the final of a World Cup upon which he continues to leave his indelible mark.
D: Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo
M: Biglia, Mascherano
Pérez, Messi, Lavezzi