FIFA World Cup Final: Argentina vs. Germany - The Evolution of Lionel Messi

Clive Rose

Germany are favorites going into the final, but Argentina won't go down easily. How did the Albiceleste get back to the World Cup final?

Germany made Brazil look like amateurs in a 7-1 demolition in the 2014 FIFA World Cup semifinal. Argentina, who have shown a capacity to play rugged defending, won't go down as easily.

But four years ago, they were blown away by Germany as well. Argentina did not play as terribly as Brazil did this week, but they did lose 4-0 to the Germans in South Africa as they were bounced out of the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals.

The team set to play them tomorrow is different, but personnel-wise, it's not terribly different. Sergio Romero will repeat in goal, Martin Demichelis will start again in defense, Javier Mascherano will return to midfield, and Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain will partner upfront.

What's more, Angel Di Maria started in midfield every match, as he did in 2010, until he was injured. Maxi Rodriguez, who started in 2010, has started a game and been used as a substitute a few times this World Cup.

As for the rest of the starters, Nicolas Otamendi was not excluded from the 2014 squad until the very last set of cuts. Only Nicolas Burdisso and Gabriel Heinze truly had no chance to be in the squad. Many called for the inclusion of Carlos Tevez, though coach Alejandro Sabella never picked him and was not about to do so this tournament.

The key changes Sabella have made have been tactical. Argentina hold their shape remarkably well and work extremely hard. Dropping Tevez, an incredibly popular player among Argentina's supporters was an important move. Tevez's flaws-  lack of commitment to defending and his poor scoring record at international level - meant he was not worth keeping on the squad, considering his propensity to cause locker-room problems.

Diego Maradona managed Argentina in 2010, but he was almost as bad a manager as he was a brilliant player. His biggest blunders were playing a flat back four lacking pace on the flanks, an overrun midfield with Mascherano having to cover everything, and a forward line that instead of helping Messi, seemed to get in his way.

There were warning signs, with Argentina laboring to qualify and being thumped 6-1 by Bolivia, one of the lesser sides in South America (albeit famously stronger in the altitude of their home stadium). But the loss to the Germans cemented his sacking.

Before Sabella took over, Argentina were managed by Sergio Batista in the 2011 Copa America. There was reason to be optimistic. Batista changed many of the players - Demichelis included - and brought in guys Maradona was criticized for excluding, such as Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti. Plus, the tournament was taking place on home soil.

Argentina were shocking. In their opening match, with Tevez still starting, they were trailing to Bolivia by one goal until Sergio Aguero volleyed a late equalizer. This was, mind you, Bolivia in Argentina, not La Paz. They drew 0-0 against Colombia.

What happened next was interesting. Needing a win to progress from the group stage, they defeated a Costa Rica side playing with mainly youth players according to CONMEBOL rules about North American sides playing in the South American tournament. Tevez was finally dropped from the starting eleven. Instead, it had 8 players who would start the group stage match vs. Iran in this World Cup: Romero, Mascherano, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago, Di Maria, Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Aguero.

There was a second wind about them, as they won 3-0, qualified out of the group, and faced Uruguay in the knockout stages. Despite Argentina trailing early, Messi played the role of playmaker well, and he gave Higuain an assist to equalize.

Tevez was brought on as Uruguay played with 10 men after a red card. However, the match went all the way to penalties. Romero saved not a single one. Argentina almost went 5-for-5 as well, but for a miss but from - who else, but Tevez.

Batista was sacked, saying later he faced outside pressure to include Tevez against his wishes. As he was in the 2010 World Cup, Messi was quite brilliant, though he did not score any goals, leading to torrents of criticism.

Alejandro Sabella got the job almost exactly 3 years ago. He was not the experienced statesman many Argentines wanted, but he at least had more experience than Maradona or Batista. He had served as an assistant to Daniel Pasarella when he managed Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Plus, he had won important silverware: the 2009 Copa Libertadores with his club, Estudiantes de La Plata.

Enzo Perez, a likely starter in the World Cup final, was a key component of Estudiantes' midfield. Mariano Andujar, his starting keeper in La Plata, is the backup for Argentina now. Fede Fernandez, a young defender, started most of the matches in central defense this World Cup.

In 2010, Sabella managed his most famous Estudiantes match to fans outside of South America. The scene was the Club World Cup final. His opposition? None other than the 2010 Barcelona team which, to this day, remains the only team to win six trophies in a single year. It nearly was only five.

Estudiantes lacked stars anywhere near the quality of Barcelona, but they went in front, 1-0, and nearly held the lead until Pedro Rodriguez equalized in the 89th minute. Messi would score a memorable goal with his chest in extra time to secure the trophy. Sabella did not win anything that day, but his reputation as a defensive tactician surely improved.

Sabella's first move as Argentina boss was to name Messi captain of the side. Javier Mascherano had been the captain for quite a while now, with good reason. Mascherano is a lionhearted leader, able to get passionate and angry with his troops, yet kind enough to remain popular. Messi, on the other hand, is famously quiet. Yes, he's had an outburst or two when a teammate made the wrong move, but those moments are probably so well-remembered because they're so counter to his personality. The best player on the team? Sure. But the captain?

Mascherano did his part, accepting the stripping of his captaincy with humble grace. He has a reputation of somewhat of a hothead, which has resulted in a few crazy moments. Not everyone takes the changing of captaincy to a younger player well. Michael Ballack was clearly upset with Phillip Lahm for not voluntarily relinquishing the armband of the German national team after Lahm claimed it while Ballack was out injured.

Instead, Mascherano played as a captain without an armband. The respect of his peers was automatic. Armband or no armband, he led and they listened.

Meanwhile, Messi blossomed. He had been criticized by many Argentine fans for not performing to the level he had for Barcelona, especially given that he had not lived in Argentina since he was a child. The rivalry with Tevez, who always had the fans' support, exacerbated things.

Sabella did two things which came to define this Argentina team. The first was giving the captaincy to Messi. The second was dropping Tevez for good. The message was clear. Sabella's reign had one player at it's base.

Still, it was not exactly clear sailing from the get-go. Argentina did win their first qualifying game convincingly, 4-1 against Chile. But from then on, the team's performance dipped precipitously.

First, Argentina lost to South American minnows Venezuela. They again drew at home with Bolivia. At one time, this was an unacceptable result. It had become the new normal.

In November 2011, Argentina found themselves 1-0 down at halftime in the sweltering heat, away to Colombia. The fourth game in qualifying, and Argentina were already nearing a three-game skid.

Instead, it became a turning point. Messi scored the first goal, calming Argentine nerves. Then Romero had to make a point-blank save on Camilo Zuniga (known today for causing Neymar's injury).

With 7 minutes left, Messi surged from the right channel, skipped past a challenge, and found Higuain with a delightful throughball. Higuain's shot was parried by the Colombian keeper, but into Aguero, who nailed the winner.

After that match, Argentina went on a rampage, outscoring opponents 20-3 over the course of the next six games, winning five and drawing one.

With tactics suited to Messi's strenghts, the results are night-and-day different. He has 25 goals in 31 games under Sabella, compared to 17 in 61 games prior.

Argentina has evolved even more since then. Sabella has, true to his reputation as a man capable of building great walls with somewhat unregarded players, built possibly the World Cup's best, most disciplined defense.

The chances of a 7-1 repeat, or indeed, a 4-0 repeat, are slim.

The turning point for the team, however, was the maturation of Messi. In the World Cup shootout, Messi was calm. "I'd compare him to an assassin," Mascherano once said. Messi was confident, stroking home the first penalty, celebrating mildly.

The team responds to their captain. They did not miss a single shot in the shootout. Like in the hot Colombian sun, Argentina will rely on Messi to make things happen.

Messi, the mute, a leader? You better believe it.

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