Last hurrah for Sabella
Updated: 2014-07-13 07:10
By Agence France-Presse in Rio de Janeiro (China Daily)
From Bramall Lane in Sheffield to a World Cup final in Brazil, Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella's path to the most important game in soccer was not always paved with gold.
Sabella the player, much like the manager, was a modest professional and, after an early career breakthrough at River Plate, found himself in unusual surroundings for an Argentinian in the late 1970s, toiling for Sheffield United in the English lower leagues.
Legend has it the Blades had tried to sign a teenage Diego Maradona but found his asking price too high and opted for the cheaper option in Sabella instead.
However, while the 59-year-old might have been unable to emulate Maradona's genius on the field, he has done a much better job of leading his country to the brink of a third World Cup triumph from the bench than Maradona managed four years ago.
Sabella's agent, Eugenio Lopez, confirmed on Friday that Sunday's final against Germany will almost certainly be his last game in charge of Argentina no matter the outcome.
His final task is to succeed where Maradona failed in a 4-0 thrashing by the Germans in the quarterfinals in South Africa in 2010.
Buenos Aires sports daily Ole once described Sabella as the antithesis to Maradona - an understated and humble coach with a meticulous eye for tactical details.
His record bears that out.
After 15 years as assistant to Daniel Passarella in a variety of jobs including with the Argentine and Uruguayan national teams, Sabella stepped out on his own for the first time at Estudiantes in 2009 with almost instant success.
In his first year, the club from La Plata won the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 39 years in a not too dissimilar manner to the way La Albiceleste have battled their way to the World Cup final.
Estudiantes lost just twice in eight knockout ties during its triumphant Libertadores campaign.
Far form the free-flowing attacking force in qualifying that Sabella admitted made him "close my eyes and pray" whenever it had to defend, Argentina has kept four clean sheets in six games en route to the final and has yet to concede at all in 330 minutes of soccer in the knockout phase.
At the start of the tournament he was looked upon as merely a facilitator for the squad's leading players, most notably Lionel Messi, after bowing to the demands of the four-time World Player of the Year to drop a 5-3-2 formation after just 45 minutes of the opening game against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, he has still managed to impose the control he craves. He admits to preferring smart, hard working players to those with more technical ability but little intelligence for the game.
That has been shown in his preference for Lucas Biglia over Fernando Gago in the past two games and his decision to leave the creative talents of Ever Banega and Jose Sosa out of the 23-man squad altogether.
Those decisions were not the ones that caused controversy in Argentina, though, as it was national hero Carlos Tevez's exclusion that dominated debates for months leading up to the World Cup.
However, Sabella's fear that Tevez's inclusion would unbalance the dynamic within the squad has been vindicated.
Sabella has remained a figure of fun at times during the tournament after having water squirted on him dismissively by Ezequiel Lavezzi and comically stumbling in aghast after Gonzalo Higuain struck the bar against Switzerland.
Yet, it is he who could have the last laugh should he overcome the odds one last time at the Maracana on Sunday.
GERMANY VS ARGENTINA: KEY MATCHUPS
Here are four key battles in Sunday's World Cup final between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
German midfielder Sami Khedira vs Argentine forward Lionel Messi
The Germans have been studying how the Netherlands managed to keep Messi relatively subdued in the semifinal, although they have not given many clues as to how they intend to go about the job themselves.
Messi has effectively been a playmaker in the tournament and Khedira is likely to have a key role in keeping him under wraps. Khedira, a box-to-box midfielder, worked tirelessly to help close down the Brazilian midfield in his side's epic 7-1 semifinal win on Tuesday.
Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain vs German defender Mats Hummels
Although his goal haul has been disappointing, Higuain's movement causes defenders endless problems, pulling them out of position to open space for Messi to thread balls through to Ezequiel Lavezzi or run at the defense himself.
Hummels is strong in the air and should be able to use his size and speed to close the gaps.
German forward Thomas Mueller vs Argentine defender Marcos Rojo
Mueller has been one of the outstanding players of the tournament with five goals and is usually found on the right side of the attack where leftback Marcos Rojo is the first line of defense for the South Americans.
German midfielder Toni Kroos vs Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano
Kroos was one of the outstanding players in Germany's 7-1 demolition of Brazil, a ruthless finisher and a physically imposing presence.
If he plays on the left of midfield again he may fall into Mascherano's sphere of influence, setting up one of the key battles in the final.
Mascherano has been outstanding for Argentina and played a key role in helping subdue Arjen Robben during the semifinal against the Netherlands.
Scoring stars Lionel Messi of Argentina (left) and Miroslav Klose of Germany will be aiming to add to their legacies in Sunday's World Cup final. Juan Mabromata / Javier Soriano / Agence France-presse