World Cup 2014: Argentina rescued by Javier Mascherano

By Tim VickeryBBC Sport's South American football expert in Rio
Argentina forward Lionel Messi (left) and midfielder Javier Mascherano
Has Mascherano been more important to Argentina than Messi?
2014 Fifa World Cup final
Venue: Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro Date: Sunday, 13 July 20:00 BST
Coverage: Live and uninterrupted on BBC One, the BBC Sport website and BBC Radio 5 live

Back in 2007 when Javier Mascherano joined Liverpool, the midfielder was astonished to find out that some of his team-mates attached little importance to playing for their national team.

For Argentina's "little boss", this was inconceivable. Mascherano is prepared to bleed blue and white for the cause.

I first saw him 11 and a half years ago, playing for the Under-20s in the South American Championship. The instant comparison was with former boxer Joe Frazier - the tougher the game, the more he more he seemed to like it.

Six months later he was handed his senior Argentina debut - he had still not played a match for his club side, River Plate, but his country had identified him as one for the future, and by 2004 an Argentina team without him had become inconceivable. It remains so a decade later.

Netherlands 0-0 Argentina (2-4 pens)

But it has not been an easy 10 years in an Argentina shirt. True, there are Olympic gold medals from 2004 and 2008, but the nation has been waiting for a senior title since the 1993 Copa America.

They thought they had won the competition once more in Peru in 2004, with the young Mascherano anchoring the midfield. They led Brazil 2-1 until Adriano equalised with the last kick of the game, and the Selecao won the penalty shootout.

Argentina met Brazil again in the next Copa America final three years later in Venezuela, and were strong favourites, only to be shot down 3-0. Then, with Mascherano captaining the side, they hosted the competition in 2011 - but fell on penalties in the quarter-finals to eventual winners Uruguay.

Both of Mascherano's previous World Cup campaigns have also ended in quarter-final defeat - and both times to Sunday's opponents.

Javier Mascherano in focus
Age: 30, Caps: 104, Club side: Barcelona
He has made 28 tackles at the 2014 World Cup, more than any other player.
Mascherano captained Argentina at the 2010 finals in South Africa but lost that position to Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi for Brazil.
He has made a tournament-high 509 passes with a 90% completion rate.
The midfielder has played all 600 minutes of Argentina's World Cup campaign in Brazil.

Four years ago it was not even close, the Germans winning 4-0 in Cape Town. In 2006, Argentina fell to the hosts in yet another penalty shootout - making it all the sweeter that they finally managed to win one last Wednesday against the Dutch - which sets Mascherano up for the biggest game of his life.

At 30, this might well be his last chance at World Cup glory - and there is a genuine fear that this might also apply to his nation. If Argentina cannot win the 2014 World Cup, when can they?

They are on their home continent, inspired by massive travelling support. The draw has been kind to them. They have one of the game's great players theoretically at the peak of his powers. And they can still count on players who, like Mascherano, are successful graduates of the youth development programme.

Argentina last won the World Under-20 trophy seven years ago - with a team that included the likes of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and goalkeeper Sergio Romero. But the production line of talent seems to be slowing down. Subsequent youth sides have been very disappointing.

This tournament, then, always looked like the golden opportunity - and the team are through to their first World Cup final since the days of Diego Maradona. The spotlight, of course, is on forward and captain Lionel Messi, the latter-day Maradona, who has provided the odd flash of left-footed genius along the way.

Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano (right) tackles Netherlands forward Argen Robben
Mascherano is a holding midfielder but has been deployed as a centre-back by club side Barcelona

But Mascherano has been every bit as important as his Barcelona clubmate - as emphasised by his exceptional late block on the Netherlands' Arjen Robben in the semi-final, which for its defensive awareness and determination was one of the key moments of this World Cup.

Mascherano has made 28 tackles in the competition, more than any other player.

But his will to win and ferocious covering work often obscure the fact that he is also a thoroughly proficient footballer with the ball at his feet.

There is no way that Mascherano, employed as a centre-half by his club, would have been part of former Barca boss Pep Guardiola's defensive unit at the Nou Camp without the ability to play out from the back. He can pass well both long and short - and, to the astonishment of many, he also leads the tournament statistics chart for the number of passes made - 509, with a 90% completion rate.

The original idea of coach Alejandro Sabella's Argentina was a line up of attacking stars. But the so-called "fantastic four" have failed to sparkle.

Gonzalo Higuain has looked very sluggish. Aguero has never been remotely close to full fitness, a problem which now afflicts Di Maria.

Even Messi is way off top condition and forced to dose himself - he spends much of the game wandering round with the air of a bored secretary waiting for the Monday morning bus, before suddenly coming to life to create a moment of magic.

Perhaps, then, the real star of Argentina's campaign has been Mascherano, 'the little boss' who keeps coming up big for his country when it really matters.


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